When Channel 3 news reporter April O’Neil (Judith Hoag) is accosted one night during the walk to her car by a group of thugs, four strange saviors submerged in shadow come to her rescue with the speed and stealth of ninjas. Both foes and friends represent forces the city of Manhattan will reckon in incredible ways. On the side of crime and greed is the mysterious Foot Clan, a clandestine syndicate originating from Japan believed to be long forgotten. Led by the imposing Shredder (James Saito) and trained as ninjas, the Foot uses their talent for crime’s sake, in addition to recruiting the city’s delinquent youth as the next generation of troops. On the side of virtue and righteousness are…mutated teenage turtles who dwell in the sewers also schooled in the ways of the ninja by their master Splinter (Kevin Clash), an adult human-sized mutated rat! Soon, the quartet formed by Leonardo (Brian Tochi), Donatello (Corey Feldman), Michelangelo (Robbie Rist) and Raphael (Josh Pais) will test the hardness of their shells and the sharpness of the Shredder’s blades!
Of all the properties from the 1980s to make it big in pop culture, few would have placed bets in favour of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a black and white, somewhat gritty if also comically inclined graphic novel by the writer-artist duo of Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird. The concept alone sounds like a joke. Well, the concept itself is a joke, really, but regardless of how zany and offbeat it might have been, it caught like wildfire like few other ideas ever could and quickly struck a chord not just with comic book readers but kids as well once the stories made the transition to colourful after school and Saturday morning cartoons in 1987. With turtles all the rage by the latter years of the decade it was only logical, not to mention economically viable, to bring these heroes in a half shell to the silver screen, much to the delight of millions of children and the ire of plenty of parents.
What makes Steve Barron’s 1990 cinematic translation so interesting to analyze is the fact that it appears to be an adaptation of several iterations of the property as opposed to just one. Upon first glance, especially during the film’s opening five minutes, it truly appears as though the director, his screenwriters Todd W. Langen and Bobby Herbeck, and the production crew have gone the purist route and chosen to bring the original, slightly more adult-themed comic book to life. There is a lot throughout the picture to support that theory. For one, the set design and cinematography are both akin to the style and mood of classic film noir, with darkness and light frequently playing humungous roles in setting the tone in a great many scenes. For those who expected a direct transposition of the cartoon series from the television screen to the movie screen, said expectations were laid to waste for much of the film’s running length. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a surprisingly dark movie, both literally for its moody lighting and for its handling of many of the leading characters. Raphael, understood to be the ‘cool but rude’ turtle, is quite the hothead in this first film in addition to his short temper causing him to suffer a spectacularly violent beating at the hands of the Foot Clan at the midway point of the film. If that wasn’t enough, he yells ‘Damn!’ loud and clear more than once (one might liken this curious factoid to the word ‘shit’ being uttered in 1986’s Transformers: The Movie). To top it off, the protagonists’ chief nemesis, The Shredder, is a laughing matter in name alone. He looks like a stone-cold killer, acts like one when finally engaging in combat in the film’s climax and corrupts misguided children and teenagers into believing they have a home within his criminal organization, poisoning their minds with a false sense of community.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Features Four Formidable Freaks and Fisticuffs
On the flip side, the four heroes themselves look (to a degree) and sound like the animated counterparts. True enough, Raphael is a short-tempered curmudgeon to the last, but the other three are true to the fun-loving side of being a teenager their reputation was based on up until that point in the property’s history. Constant cries of ‘awesome’ and ‘cowabunga’ remind the viewer that these creatures are just a bunch of lovable guys who want to have fun when time permits. While the sense of humour peppered throughout the film will not appeal to everyone (some of it is, admittedly, a bit juvenile), the presence of the titular ninja turtles does provide a great degree of levity in contrast to the literal and thematic darkness that surrounds them. Taken as such, Barron’s film is a hybrid of sorts, picking and choosing elements from the first Eastman and Laird books as well as what made the cartoon series such a runaway hit in the few years prior.
While the movie does strive to provide a moderately interesting human element to the story of family and friendship with characters like April O’Neil and vigilante Casey Jones (played with frat boyish charm by Elias Koteas), the foursome of genetically enhanced reptiles takes center stage once they are revealed on screen. The decision to produce a live-action motion picture was one fraught with risk. Rather than take the easy way out and make an elongated episode of the cartoon show, a decision that honestly would have made decent sense, the filmmakers, in collaboration with the legendary Jim Henson, give viewers one of the more visually impressive and memorable version of the fans have ever seen. A mixture of detailed costuming and animatronics, the heroes represented at the time a tour de force effort in hand made craftsmanship. The reason is not limited to the fact that the outfits look believable enough but because the actors inside are called upon to perform a series of martial arts manoeuvres, the difficulty of which is augmented by the suits. Jumps, flips, roundhouse kicks, punches, spinning on the floor, the swinging of swords, bo, nunchucks, and sais are all exercised in some capacity as waves of enemies attack. Performed any stunt man or woman sans costume these feats would serve as passable entertainment but not anything genre fans haven’t seen before. When done by actors wearing bulky costumes such as these it all looks rather incredible. The caveat resulting from the outfits will not be viewed as an acceptable reason for the otherwise average quality of the martial action on display but for the more forgiving viewers, it makes for a solid lark.
Striking a reasonably fluid balance between the grit of its source material and the family-friendliness of the animated version that stemmed from it, Steve Barron’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles sports enough qualities for ardent fans to admire and newcomers to discover. While the ninja skills the mutated monsters pride themselves on cannot be considered of the highest order, what the actors and stuntmen accomplish under layers of prosthetic material in an attempt to produce high-octane fisticuffs remains impressive in its own way. Turtle power!
Rumble in the Bronx, 25 Years Later
Jackie Chan’s American Breakthrough, 25 Years Later
Few national film industries have ever been able to rival Hollywood, whose output dominates the global film market. But for several decades, Hong Kong’s cinema provided stiff competition, regularly beating American movies at their local box office. But as the years went on, directors and stars from Hong Kong wanted something more and started knocking on Hollywood’s door. After changing the game with the vivid stylings of 1986’s A Better Tomorrow, director John Woo set his sights on the American market, producing a string of legendary action films (The Killer, Hard Boiled) that found an audience in the United States through arthouse theaters and home video. Despite the international cult status of Woo’s work, these films didn’t do so well at the Hong Kong box office. But that didn’t matter to Woo; these movies were his international calling cards. After formally introducing himself to American audiences with 1993’s Hard Target, Woo became a dependable studio journeyman in the United States for almost a decade.
American studios loved Woo, so much so that they looked for more talent in Hong Kong, bringing directors like Tsui Hark and Ringo Lam to America. Soon Hollywood directors picked up on this new style, in the same way that their Hong Kong counterparts took cues from movies like Top Gun and Lethal Weapon in the 1980s. As pointed out by David Bordwell in his essential book Planet Hong Kong, American action films underwent a “Hong Kongification” in the late 90s, signaled by films like Michael Bay’s Bad Boys, Simon West’s Con Air, and Antoine Fuqua’s The Replacement Killers; these movies were brasher, bolder, and bigger than anything that had come before.
This is all to say that, for better or worse, Hong Kong action cinema irrevocably altered the shape and style of Hollywood blockbuster filmmaking. But Hong Kong’s most famous contribution to American pop culture comes not from its directors, but one of its stars: Jackie Chan. If, like me, you grew up in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it’s hard to believe that Chan hadn’t always worked in the United States, as he was an almost constant fixture in the pop culture universe of my childhood. After a decade of Belgian beefcake and Austrian Adonises, Jackie Chan was exactly what America audiences needed: an action hero you felt comfortable taking home to mom and dad. He’s as lovable as he is lethal, as good with kids as he is with kung fu.
Although Chan actually got his start as a child actor, his career didn’t take off until the late 1970s. After Bruce Lee’s death, Jackie’s long-time manager Willie Chan attempted to sell him as the next Lee; although Jackie had worked as a stuntman on Fist of Fury and Enter the Dragon, he couldn’t quite get the hang of Lee’s style and soon drifted to more comedic roles. The success of 1978’s Drunken Master, which exemplifies his marriage of high-flying, acrobatic kung fu and slapstick comedy, finally propelled Jackie to stardom in Hong Kong. After an unsuccessful attempt to break into the American market with films like The Big Brawl and The Protector in the early 1980s, Jackie returned to Hong Kong and produced some of his most famous films, including Police Story and Wheels on Meals. Chan finally broke through to American audiences with Rumble in the Bronx, which hit theaters in the United States twenty five years ago this month.
Bronx exemplifies what American audiences came to love and expect from Jackie Chan. He plays Keung, a Hong Kong cop visiting New York for the wedding of his uncle. While the United States seems at first like an accepting land of opportunity, Keung soon finds that it’s actually the opposite. He means well, but lands in the middle of a criminal conspiracy and ends up doing battle with a roving gang of goons who look like extras from The Warriors. Keung’s an endearing everyman, a perpetual underdog with a penchant for making enemies even when he means well. He’s dorky but dangerous, a chivalrous outsider who dresses a little like Jerry Seinfeld and maintains a clear sense of right and wrong.
Chan’s style of fighting reflects his stock character; it’s less about the weight behind his blows and more about the speed and precision with which he delivers them. He’s a whirling dervish. Martial arts aside, it makes sense that Chan couldn’t capture Lee’s style. Bruce Lee was a little like a Hong Kong James Dean, a wild bolt of pure intensity who died as fast as he lived. Jackie Chan is a little more like Jerry Lewis, and has always seemed more interested in comedy than pure kung fu.
Chan is well known for his worship of silent stars like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd, and like his heroes, he’s also famous for the extreme risks he takes to land a gag, often resulting in accident and injury. Even though Chan’s character is a little more graceful on his feet than those played by his inspirations, he still doesn’t win every fight. His character might be a master of martial arts, but he’s new in town, which means he never has total control over his physical environment. Chan’s about the farthest thing from, say, Riki-Oh; it’s the physical abuse he puts up with that makes us root for him. He’s not just an action hero, he’s a vaudevillian, which means pain is just as central to his persona as physical prowess.
Though the ridiculousness of Rumble in the Bronx roots it firmly in the tradition of Hong Kong action cinema, it signaled the arrival of a bright new star in the American popular cinema. He might have failed the first time, but Jackie Chan struck it big in the United States on his second go-round, raking in cash and earning audience adoration with hits like Rush Hour and Shanghai Knights. His presence in American pop culture might have lessened in his elder years, but he remains one of the most important and endearing figures in global action cinema.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published under our old brand, Sound On Sight.
Akira Kurosawa’s Sugata Sanshirô is an excellent directorial debut
Sugata, a young man, struggles to learn the nuance and meaning of judo, and in doing so comes to learn something of the meaning of life.
Akira Kurosawa’s feature-length debut opens with a wandering young man named Sanshiro Sugata (Susumu Fujita) arriving into town where he aspires to earn a place under the tutelage of a great jujitsu master. Shortly thereafter Sanshiro learns first-hand that he would be instructors are perhaps not all they are cracked to be. Their attempt to rustle a rival sensei’s feathers, Shogoro Yano (Denjiro Okochi) is ill-fated, as Yano handles each attacker with the greatest of ease. Much to Sanshiro’s surprise, the victor of the contest practices judo rather than jujitsu. Under the auspices of Yano’s strict but just guidance, as well as through the trials and tribulations and a martial arts tournament, that Sanshiro will learn to control his bustling energy, channeling it to become a better, more composed human being.
Akira Kurosawa is synonymous with Japanese cinema. Virtually any conversation, published article, or book surveying the breadth of film from the land of the rising sun simply must make at least passing reference to the great master. The sheer volume of his oeuvre, to say nothing of its variety and quality, is staggering. For all the existing critical appraisals of Rashomon, Yojimbo, Seven Samurai, and High and Low (but to name a smidgeon of his cherished works), precious little time is devoted to his earliest works, namely his official directorial debut from 1943, Sanshiro Sugata. Every filmmaker must get his or her start somewhere, even the legends.
Sanshiro Sugata an eye-opening, strong start to Akira Kurosawa’s long career
Co-written with Tomito Tsuneo, the picture was conceived during the final years of the Second World War, a brutal contest in which Japan played a crucial, ultimately devastating part. As such, creative control was not something the government felt was best left entirely in the hands of hot young artists the likes of Kurosawa. Kurasawa himself was not even responsible for choosing the project and, what’s more, several portions of what would have made the final film were left on the cutting room floor. Interestingly enough, no effort is made to hide this truth from the public when watching the film as it opens with an approximately minute-long explanation about how the current final, if incomplete, cut of the film came to be. Understandably a level of frustration can be felt by many a cinephile upon learning of the stifling of a creative force such as Kurosawa, but such was the case back when wartime measures dictated many facets of life, in addition to the fact the filmmaker had not yet made his mark on cinema.
While a couple of sequences are clearly missing from the finished product, resulting in some plot points suffering from a lack of dramatic weight, there is a lot of quality to Sanshiro Sugata, starting with the performance of the lead man himself, Susumu Fujita. Fujita would not collaborate with the director very much throughout his career, which is a bit of a shame considering how superbly calibrated and entertaining his effort is in this picture. Sugata himself is at times a feverishly temperamental figure, ready and willing to push anybody around who might have a bone to pick with him. The energy level in these instances is an obvious precursor to the many wild roles a more popular Kurosawa collaborator, Toshiro Mifune, would deliver in the many years that followed. Sanshiro Sugata makes the hero’s journey emotionally compelling by having the titular student boxed in relatively early in the adventure. After a skirmish in the town’s streets, one night leaves Shogoro Yano’s school embarrassed, the latter scolds the scoundrel for his foolish ways. Sugata’s realization that he must change therefore comes quite soon after the film begins, setting him on a path that lasts the better part of the next hour. From that point onward actor, Susumu Fujita plays the part with a fine balance between a willingness to erupt and the very suppression of such inhibitions. There exists a strong desire to be better, for his sake, for the sake of his master and that of the lovely Sayo Murai (Yukiko Todoroki), daughter of his opponent (Takashi Shimura) in an upcoming tournament. In the grander scheme of Kurasawa’s body of work, Susumu Fujita is not the first of his actors that springs to mind, making Sanshiro Sugata all the more revelatory an experience.
Notwithstanding the cut sequences (for which the director cannot be blamed) and a couple of instances of clumsy imagery, such as a glowing flower used to represent humanity (for which the director can indeed be blamed), the movie is extremely well directed, featuring abundant examples of the trademarks he would go on to perfect in the near future as well as some spectacularly dynamic camera work. Working in tandem with cinematographer Akira Mumura, Kurasawa lifts what could have been a perfunctory story to soaring heights with camera pans that look far away ahead of their time. The frame will sometimes swoop down into an alleyway as a fight occurs or glide just past someone’s intense glare as they grapple with an opponent. The dynamism with which the filmmaker plays with the framing possibilities is enough to make one think Kurosawa made the film on the 21st. It is simply that action-packed, breathtaking really.
Sanshiro Sugata is an all-around pleasant excursion into Akira Kurosawa’s early days as a voice in filmmaking.
This being a film about judo and jujitsu, among other things, it serves up a nice dose of combat scenes, albeit ones dominated by a level of quiet violence. For combatants such as these, weapons are out of the question in order to save face. Additionally, the confrontations between the jujitsu and judo artists are set, for the most part, within the parameters of officially licensed battles set-up by schools. Finally, the very nature of the tug of war between these two wrestling styles implies that a fight can begin quite slowly, the two contestants grappling each other’s arms and sometimes just walking together, hoping to catch the other off guard in a split second. It obviously is not the sort of fast-paced, brutal events modern eyes might be accustomed to and requires, admittedly, some patience to appreciate. Of note is how Kurosawa edits certain final blows. For example, the nighttime scene in which Sugata witnesses Shogoro Yano’s incredible prowess is filmed along a river. This proves remarkably advantageous as actor Denjiro Okochi can toss his assaulters into the water, minimizing any risk of harm done to his fellow thespians. For indoor battles the options of capturing the action of someone being launched halfway across the room are more limited, therefore forcing the filmmakers to cut away from some of the more violent moments.
Sanshiro Sugata is an all-around pleasant excursion into Akira Kurosawa’s early days as a voice in filmmaking. Granted, said voice is stifled somewhat due to politically mandated alterations to the picture and not all of the plot points work as effortlessly as others (the aforementioned glowing flower is particularly silly). That said, it is more than worth his fans’ time. It frequently looks stupendous, features shockingly modern camera techniques and a well rounded, heartfelt performance from lead Susumu Fujita that anchors much of the drama.
The Run: There’s a reason why This Movie Never Got a Proper Release
For most micro-budget movies, the mere fact that they could get made can be considered an accomplishment in of itself. Playing at a festival is seen as an added bonus. With limited resources comes the need to get creative in ways that, when everything comes together, can sometimes produce something fresh and new. They don’t have the luxury of spending millions of dollars on sets, actors, stunt choreographers, and special effects. As moviegoers, the one thing that should be avoided as much as possible is to give a small movie a pass simply because it treads rockier waters than studio-mandated tentpole projects. Although it is very tempting to support the little guys, sometimes a spade has to be called a spade. Herein lies the issue with The Run from Malaysian writer-director Ahmad Idham.
The film follows a former army soldier named Khaliff (Aaron Aziz), who returns to his modest hometown only to discover that things have changed. A cartel of thugs, led by an old rival who goes by the name of KJ (Erry Putra), has taken the reigns, corrupting the political system and doing their bidding with impunity. Even Khaliff’s former sweetheart Maya (Dira Abu Zahar) is caught in the terrible web, having been forced into marriage with none other than KJ himself. The last straw is when the angered veteran’s younger sister suddenly goes missing. Khaliff highly suspects KJ of having masterminded a foul fate for his sibling, sending him off on a quest to smash his enemy’s operations, rescue his sister, and perhaps even rekindle his lost love with Maya.
The Run Offers Promise but Goes Nowhere Fast
Ahmad Idham’s The Run is a mixed bag of admirable ingredients it has operating in its favor and a series of lesser qualities that drag the proceedings down, many of which stem from both budgetary constraints and a severe lack of imagination. On the positive side of things, the filmmakers should be commended for putting together a very nice array of combat sequences that belie the film’s tiny means. Notwithstanding a few wonky editing choices, The Run allows Aaron Aziz to show off a rather impressive array of physical skills. The athleticism on display from him and several of the stunt team members are genuinely fun to look at, with some of the hits convincing enough to produce wincing among the audience. Not only that but the film invests a great amount of time in its action sequences (which ironically proves to be a fault as well with regard to story — more on that shortly), giving the fans what they came to see, namely people beating each other senseless. The only quibble concerning the combat scenes is the lack of variety. With the exception of a neatly devised rooftop chase near the start of the film, a heavy dose of the action is limited to punches, jumps, and kicks. It does look nice, and it is possible to see that the actors are giving it their all, but some might find it repetitive after a while.
A couple of additional praiseworthy notes pertain first to the film’s synthesized score, harkening back to the type of music that graced many films released in the 1980s, as well as the lively performance from Hazama Azmi as Togey, a cab driver who offers his courage and extremely limited abilities to Khaliff’s mission to seek justice. Togey is far from the most original character to grace the screen, and his inclusion into the plot admittedly feels very forced, but the actor is equipped with the level of charisma necessary to have the viewer forget about the ridiculousness of the writing for his character.
That is, alas, where most of the positives come to an end. To put it bluntly, The Run suffers two nagging issues. For one, it offers nothing original to the tried, tested and true sub-genre of vigilante justice films. This is essentially an even lower budgeted version of the Joe Don Baker vehicle Walking Tall from 1973. The beats can be predicted from a mile away, which itself would not be such a terrible thing provided director Idham could muster even the slightest gusto to make the familiar passably interesting. There is an expression used by some when discussing films that clearly lack originality, the argument being that the journey matters more than the destination. This is true enough, and there are countless examples to back it up, but when the journey itself is as pedestrian as it is here the film is in dire straits. None of the actors have the chops to add the smallest amount of gravitas to their roles and the direction has a generally flat tone about it. The plot is merely ‘going through the motions’ in order to showcase some well-concocted fights scenes, but, as previously mentioned, even those can grow a wee bit tiresome due to limited creativity.
There is perhaps no worse criticism to throw at a film than calling it boring. A terrible film can be gleefully ripped to shreds and analyzed for its awfulness. A boring film simply fails to elicit considerable emotion. Yes the filmmakers obviously put effort and heart into creating the best fight scenes they could, and in many respects, those moments do pay dividends, but there is very, very little else of note. Even the title itself is a bit misleading, suggesting that the protagonist shall be the one fleeing his pursuers, when in fact the opposite occurs for the most part. Those curious to check out action movies from lesser-known markets may still want to see what this Malaysian film has to offer, which is fine. Just be forewarned that, apart from a few qualities, it runs on empty.
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