Michael Cimino’s Year Of The Dragon is a visceral blast of pure Americana as only the man could bring us. It kills me that he suffered through that whole Heaven’s Gate fiasco (which is actually a really good movie, but that’s another story and argument entirely) because it extinguished any hopes of him making future films, and in doing so the studios effectively committed genocide against their own. Sure the guy was crazy as hell, but damn could he ever make a great film. This one is one of the most criminally overlooked cop flicks of all time, partly due to Cimino’s scorching direction and partly due to a a performance of monolithic grittiness from Mickey Rourke as Captain Stanley White, the cop who won’t stop. White is fresh out of Nam and mad as hell, launching a unilateral crusade of racist violence and self righteous fury against the Chinese crime syndicate in New York City, particularly a young upstart in their organization named Joey Thai (John Lone). Thai is as ruthless as White is determind, and the two clash in ugly spectacle, causing leagues of collateral damage on either side and inciting them both to roar towards an inevitable, bloody conclusion. Thai’s elderly superiors warn him of men like White, men who are fuelled purely by anger, bitterness and nothing else, smelling the fire and brimstone in the air and wisely stepping out of the way. Thai is of a younger, more petulant generation and foolishly decides to meet the beast head on by essentially kicking the hornet’s nest. White is warned by his caring wife (Caroline Kava) and fellow cop and friend Lou (Raymond J. Barry is excellent, firing Rourke up further with his work) not to mess with such a dangerous crowd. He has a volatile relationship with a beautiful Chinese American reporter (Arianne is the only weak link in the acting chain) who puts herself on the line for him by digging around in dangerous corners. The intensity level of this film is something straight from the adrenal gland; even in episodic scenes of introspect we feel the hum of the character’s emotions, and when the conflict starts again, which it does in fast and furious amounts, the actors are simply in overdrive. Rourke has never been better than he was in the 80’s, it was just his zenith of power. This isn’t a role that gets a lot of recognition, but along with Angel Heart, Rumble Fish and Pope Of Greenwich Village, I think it’s his best. He puts so much of himself into Stanley White that the edges which separate performer from performance begin to blur and waver, until we are locked into his work on a level that goes beyond passive consumption of art and elicits something reflective in us. Not to sound too hippie dippy about it, but the guy is just that fucking good. On the calmer side of the coin, John Lone brings both evil and elegance to Joey, a slick surface charm that’s constantly disturbed by Rourke’s hostility, leading to an eventual meltdown that’s very cool to see in Lone’s expert hands. This is one for the ages and should be in the same pantheon with all timers like Heat, Serpico, The French Connection and others. Rourke fires on all cylinders, as do his colleagues of the craft, and Cimino sits cackling at the switchboard with a mad calm, yanking all the right levers in a frenzy of unhinged genius. Not to be missed.
Sinner is a 2007 indie buried in the depths of obscurity, and defined by its very bold choice to cast an actor in the lead role whose career so far has been so different from the type of character he plays here, it’s a true blessing for fans to see him in this new light. The actor in question is Nick Chinlund, a rough looking bruiser with a filmography almost entirely made up of villainous creeps, grizzled detectives and other assorted hardcases (see Con Air, Training Day, The X Files and The Chronicles Of Riddick for his most critically celebrated work). Here he drops every trait he’s been known for, playing small town catholic priest Anthony Romano, a man with a troubled past and an almost bankrupt parish who is facing an internal crisis, only made worse by the arrival of skanky grifter Lil (Georgina Cates) who preys on celibate priests, amongst other bottom-feeding life choices. After an incident involving Romano’s lecherous fellow preacher, he allows Lil to take refuge from the police in his rectory, against better judgment. She’s a nasty piece of work at first and Cates’s performance is far too over the top, only simmering down to meet the character arc in the script long after it calls for action, making her work too little, too late, yet still rather affecting. Chinlund is nothing short of mesmerizing, giving Romano the internal conflict and vulnerability the character deserves, which is not an easy task when one considers the complex nature of the writing. Underrated doesn’t begin to describe this actor, and lately I’ve been sad to see he hasn’t been given many roles that are worthy of his talent. I’ve searched far and wide for Sinner many years, finally finding an amazon seller who would send me a copy. I loved it, and it made me so happy to see Chinlund get the kind of role that goes against the grain of much of his work. Romano uses the sort of golf as a release from priestly and personal hardships, the script using lots of golfer’s lingo as sly similes for his personal issues. Tagging along with him is his scrappy and seemingly imaginary Caddy, played by Brad Dourif. Dourif can make any role, and I mean any, into pure magic with his dedication to the craft. Seeing him and Chinlund share a few wonderful scenes with bushels of chemistry was a nerd’s dream come true for me, and part of the reason I searched so long for a copy of this film. For casuals this may be a bit offbeat to really sink into, but for fans of the actors and idiosyncratic indie flicks, this is a bona fide goldmine.
Clay Pigeons is one of the odder films floating around out there, but it’s a damn good time at the movies. It fits into a subgenre that I have lovingly dub as ‘desert noir’, other prime examples being Oliver Stone’s U Turn and John Dahl’s Red Rock West. Intrigue and murder abound under a sun soaked, parchment dry landscape in these types of films, always with a healthy helping of dark humour and unsettling, psychopathic characters running around, perpetually up to no good. Joaquin Phoenix (adding to the U Turn vibe) plays Clay, a good guy who seems to have a real problem with bad luck. He finds out his friend has killed himself, which seems to be the first swirl in a spooky spiral of trouble that veers towards him like a dust devil. Soon nosy FBI agent Dale Shelby (reliably perky Janeane Garofalo) comes to town, turning her attention towards him. Dan Mooney (ever great Scott Wilson stealing scenes with perched stealth) is Clay’s friend and the town Sheriff, also on the lookout for clues. These two are the least of his worries though, as the worst is yet to come with the arrival of charming serial killer Lester Long (Vince Vaughn). This is my favourite Vince Vaughn performance because he shows his versatility with the brittle, lightning quick turns of personality injected into Lester. One minute he’s your best buddy and a lovable loudmouth, the next a coiled viper with untold violence beneath the jovial exterior. They always say serial killers are charmers, and Vince Vaughn takes that sentiment, dances around you in circles with it and then proceeds to strangle you with it when you least expect it. So yeah. The bodies pile up and no one seems to be able to tie them to anyone. Lester treats everyone like his best friend until they’re too comfortable to see the blind side coming, and poor Phoenix wanders around looking disshvelled and stressed out. It’s good fun all the way through, doing a nice see-saw rhythm between quaint, cartoonish antics and a grim, scary turn of events. Underrated and more than worth your time.
“It’s high noon at the far end of the universe”, the dvd poster of Oblivion states. Years before the underrated Cowboys & Aliens came out, Oblivion came along, and it’s definitely gives the concept a better, and quirkier run for its money. Granted it’s essentially a B movie, and it’s meagre budget shows to the point where it looks like a grade school play. But therein lies it’s charm. It’s got a cast of supremely wacky old west stereotypes played by some surprising, familiar genre faces who you’d never thought to be seen rough housing together in the same flick. It also has some lovingly crafted, creaky stop motion animation that calls Harryhausen to mind and brings to life some super weird alien hybrid thingies that look almost Henson-esque as well. When a lone spaceship lands on the outskirts of an intergalactic desert town, it’s occupant brings trouble along with him. He’s a nasty, one eyed reptilian alien gunslinger named RedEye, played by the inimitable Andrew Divoff. He growling, bad tempered son of a bitch, and his first order of business is to ruthlessly slay the town’s sheriff, and claim it for himself. What he doesn’t count on is the Sheriff’s son (Richard Joseph Paul), a prospector who soon returns to Oblivion looking for answers, along with his Native friend Buteo (the late great Jimmie F. Skaggs). All kinds of townsfolk end up in the crossfire, including drunken Doc Valentine (a priceless George Takei), slinky brothel owner Miss Kitty (Julie Newmar), a cyborg police deputy (Meg Foster), a pawnbroker (Isaac Hayes) and the town’s elegant undertaker, played by Carol Struckyen who some may remember as the giant from Twin Peaks. RedEye has a smoking hot henchwoman and girlfriend named Lash, played by B movie scream queen Musetta Vander, who gets the vibe they’re going for here and sinks her teeth into the material with admirable abandon. The film sticks to its guns despite being obviously silly and somewhat falling apart in a climax that oddly is too darkly shot to make out properly. What it lacks in resources it makes up for in imagination, which it has in spades. Alien scorpions, cyborg deputies, leather clad babes are but a few of the genre mashing treats to be found here. Great stuff. Oh and check out the sequel as well, called Oblivion 2: Backlash, it’s a nice companion piece.
Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy is one of the most unsettling film experiences you will ever sit through, and the damn thing is only 90 minutes. It’s disconcerting, ambiguous and seems to exist simply to spin the viewer’s anxiety reflex into a storm and make our stomach turn loops. It’s a trim entry into the psychological upset sub genre, and puts a frazzled looking Jake Gyllenhaal through a wringer as he pursues a mysterious doppelgänger through the streets of Toronto, a bustling city that feels oddly desolate as glanced upon by Villeneuve’s camera, adding to the themes of paranoia and mental unrest. Gyllenhaal plays a twitchy college professor who is stuck in a closed loop routine: he gives lectures at the local university, drives home to his emotionally inaccessible girlfriend (Melanie Laurant), rinse and repeat. A chink appears in the chain when he becomes aware of another man in the city who appears to be his identical twin. The other man is a small time actor with a pregnant wife (Sarah Gadon) and a decidedly more nasty approach to the situation than the professor. The two of the, circle each other in a disturbing game of not so much cat and mouse, but Jake and Jake, both of them having not a clue as to what is going on, the edges of madness inching closer to both of their perception. Are they twins? Are there even two? Is it just one of them, losing their mind? There’s very freaky dream sequences with the constant imagery of spiders, both large and small, and what do they mean? Who’s to tell? Denis has stated in interviews that there is both rhyme and reason to his creation here, but whether he will ever divulge them remains to be seen. Perhaps it’s better left illusory, a formula for entrancing audiences that has already proved to work well for David Lynch. The moment that the man behind the curtain reveals the conscious meaning of his very subconscious efforts, the spell is no doubt broken. In any case, it’s a very hard film to process or focus on, our nerves jittering constantly and sabotaging any modicum of rational though that we might employ in deciphering the piece. This may be called style and atmosphere over substance by some, but even in not comprehending what’s going on, we feel deeply that there is some sort of cryptic cohesion if we are able to feel between the lines, maybe coming up empty handed ultimately, but knowing within us that we’ve attained wealth to our soul simply by bearing witness. I can’t say it’s a film that I love, or that I would watch again, but it’s certainly one that won’t leave my memories any time soon, and that is an achievement no matter how you look at it. It’s also got one of the scariest and most unexpected endings to any film I’ve ever seen, taking you so off guard that you feel like you’re going to have a coronary. It’s filmed in sickening piss yellow saturation which adds to the overall disconcerting nature, and quite the striking colour choice as well. I can see why this one was released with little fanfare or marketing, despite the presence of heavyweights Villeneuve and Gylenhaal. It’s difficult stuff, a movie that frustratingly soars above your head, onward towards its intensely personal and psychological destination. It’s up to us to jump, grasp and attempt to reach as high as the piece in order to get what we will out of it. Good luck.
Victor Nunoz’s Coastlines is a nice small town drama with some top players all giving fine work, causing me to wonder why more people haven’t heard of it, and how come it didn’t get a wider release. In any case, it’s low key and really captures the quaint rural vibe of less densely populated areas in the states. The cast is absolutely to die for, consisting mainly of very distinct, frequently garish actors who all play it dead straight and relaxed, which is a huge switch up for most of them. Timothy Olyphant plays Sonny Mann, an ex convict recently released from prison, quietly arriving back to his Florida hometown, and the dregs of the life he left behind. His Pa (the ever awesome Scott Wilson) is conflicted by long simmering resentment, and the love for his son buried just beneath. Sonny reconnects with his best friend Dave Lockhart (Josh Brolin), who has become the town’s sheriff in the years gone by. Sparks fly between Dave’s wife (Sarah Wynter) and Sonny, creating a rift between the two and illustrating Sonny’s unavoidable knack for creating trouble for himself, and those around him. Further tension comes along when the town’s local crime lord Fred Vance (William Forsythe at his most genial and sedated) tries to strong-arm Sonny into assisting with nefarious deeds, using his younger brother Eddie (Josh Lucas) to convince him. Even when tragedy strikes and these characters go head to head, it’s in the most relaxed, laconic way that permeates southern life. Robert Wisdom has a nice bit, Angela Bettis shows up as a girl with a thing for bad boys, and watch for the late great Daniel Von Bargen as the local Sheriff. This one fits nicely into a niche that leans heavily on small town drama, dips its toes ever so slightly into thriller territory, and is a charming little piece that’s worth a look to see these actors on an acting sabbatical.
Like many people of my generation in North America, the first exposure to The Street Fighter (1974), starring Sonny Chiba, was probably the brief clip shown in Tony Scott’s True Romance (1993), which was written by Quentin Tarantino, a big fan of Chiba, an actor who got his start appearing in science fiction and crime thrillers but is best known for his martial arts movies, chief among them The Street Fighter series. True Romance’s main character celebrates his birthday by going to see a Sonny Chiba triple feature at a local theater and there he meets the girl of his dreams. In explaining the allure of Terry Tsurgui – Chiba’s character in the film – he sums it up best by telling her, “Well, he ain’t so much a good guy as he is just one bad motherfucker. I mean, he gets paid by people to fuck guys up.” Based on the worldwide success of Enter the Dragon (1973), the Toei Company decided to release its own martial arts action films and the result was The Street Fighter. It would be this film that would make Chiba an international movie star. The film went on to garner a notorious reputation for its bone-crunching violence, which earned it an unprecedented X rating in North America – the first film to do so based solely on violence.
Terry Tsurgui (Chiba) is a mercenary hired by the Yakuza to free a convicted killer named Junjo (Masashi Ishibashi) from prison who is about to be executed. The man killed seven people with his fighting skills, which one prison guard says sarcastically, “He must think he’s Bruce Lee.” Terry enters the prison under the guise of a Buddhist priest (?!) and engineers quite a clever breakout by zapping Junjo with a move that induces paralysis thereby making him unfit for execution. It takes less than four minutes into the film and we get a pretty cool fight sequence in slow motion complete with funky sound effects that were the hallmark of 1970s era martial arts films. If that weren’t enough, a fantastic spaghetti western-esque theme song by way of Shaft-era Isaac Hayes plays over the opening credits sequence and off we go.
With his sidekick and comic relief Ratnose (Goichi Yamada), Terry hijacks the ambulance carrying Junjo en route to the hospital. When the man’s brother and sister are unable to pay up, Terry proceeds to mess them up, including sending the brother out a window to his death and selling the sister into prostitution. When Terry dares to ask for more money to kidnap a rich Japanese heiress in order to control her fortune, his employers decide to kill him because Terry knows too much. As we all know from these kinds of films that that is a fatal mistake and boy, does he make them pay.
Terry only really cares about money and asks a lot for his services. He is a gruff, no-nonsense kind of guy. The film wastes no time in establishing Terry’s badass credentials as he takes on more than six guys that stupidly try to ambush him in his apartment. There’s a wild-eyed intensity that is quite unnerving to his opponents. What Terry lacks in finesse, he more than makes up for in ferocity. Subtlety is certainly not his forte. For example, he attempts to tail his target in a car without caring about or knowing to follow from a discreet distance. For his troubles, the car he and Ratnose are in is grabbed by a construction vehicle and dropped off a bridge! However, Terry’s not invincible and gets his ass handed to him when he takes on the head of a karate school who knew his father. There’s no denying that Sonny Chiba has a unique screen presence and an intense stare that puts guys like Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal to shame.
Goichi Yamada’s Ratnose is a character whose only purpose appears to be as comic relief (“Who do you think you’re talking to, Madame Butterfly?” he says to Terry at one point in reference to his lousy cooking skills), groveling and being endlessly insulted by Terry. However, he does get his self-sacrificing heroic moment in the sun and this selfless act draws a rare tear of emotion from Terry, which in a weird sort of way humanizes the film’s brutal protagonist.
The Street Fighter is chock full of great, cheesy B-movie dialogue intoned by a guy dubbing Terry’s voice trying to affect a gravely Clint Eastwood-esque vibe. One choice gem has Terry tell some assailants, “So I’m to die because I know who it is that controls the Yakuza here? Isn’t that mean and nasty?” Another gem comes when Junjo goes into an oxygen coma, collapses right before being executed and a prison official asks someone nearby, “You’re a lawyer – what must I do?” It is how this line is said – in stilted, badly done dubbing – that makes it funny. However, there are also some pretty cool lines, too, like when Junjo confronts Terry and tells him, “I’ve waited a long time to settle the score.” Terry replies dismissively, “Sorry, I’ve more urgent things right now.” How cool is that? Yeah, I’m not too busy completing a job to kick your ass right now… maybe later.
In The Street Fighter, Terry punches, kicks and viciously gouges his way through a series of brutal encounters. Among the scenes that earned the film an X rating are one in which Terry castrates a would-be rapist with his bare hands, which still manages to shock with its intensity and graphic nature even by today’s standards. Guys are punched so hard they spit out mouthful of teeth and spew judicious amounts of blood. But the film saves the best (and nastiest) move for the final showdown, an impressive battle as Terry proceeds to single-handedly decimate a tanker boat full of henchmen with a climactic fight on deck in the pouring rain.
Shigehiro Ozawa’s direction is appropriately dynamic with plenty of skewed camera angles, slow motion, black and white flashbacks and even an X-ray shot of Terry crushing a guy’s skull with his fist. How badass is that? He makes excellent use of the widescreen frame, especially during the fight scenes, letting them play out along the entire length of the frame.
When New Line Cinema picked up the film in North America, it was renamed The Street Fighter from its original title, which translated into the infinitely cooler sounding, Clash, Killer Fist! It earned an X rating for the gory violence and the studio re-edited the film significantly, cutting out 16 minutes in order to get an R rating. The Street Fighter was an international hit spawning two sequels, Return of The Street Fighter (1974) and The Street Fighter’s Last Revenge (1974) as well as a spin-off film, Sister Street Fighter (1974). None of them hold a candle to the one that started it all – a cult film that dispenses with niceties like political correctness and restraint for an unbridled romp through the criminal underworld led by Chiba’s unrepentant mercenary. For fans of down ‘n’ dirty martial arts movies, this one is pure catnip and a potent reminder of how good a decade the ‘70s was for the genre where you could have a mainstream masterpiece like Enter the Dragon along with no-holds barred carnage on display in The Street Fighter.