Fun Friday: Remo Williams – The Adventure Begins…

The 80’s was a time of excess.

File that understatement along with others such as ‘Salma Hayak is attractive’ and ‘I enjoy dairy products.’

Isn't it amazing someone signed off on this artwork?

When the 80’s movie action ball really started rolling, you got the A group of Schwarzeneggar, Stallone and Willis, then the B group of Lundgren and Van Damme, then the C group of Dudikoff and Jackie Chan.

Way on down the alphabet, somewhere around the weird numbers like ‘Q,’ you’ll find Fred Ward as Remo Williams.

The movie is subtitled ‘The Adventure Begins’ because it was based on a ‘men’s adventure series’ of books with names like ‘The Destroyer.’ It was intended to be the first of a series, but since the first movie never really caught fire the series was abandoned.

There are a couple reasons why the movie didn’t catch fire–the action scenes are lackluster, the villain not that engaging (although he could have been; he’s an arms manufacturer creating faulty weapons and scamming the US military), and the movie gets off to a slow start.

But before we get too much into it, let’s talk about the elephant in the room:

Can you spot the authentic Asian man in this picture? Neither can I, because there isn't one.

Chiun.

Chiun is Williams’s Korean mentor, teaching him everything from martial arts to what not to eat (hamburgers). From him Remo learns how to fight, how to climb stuff, how to dodge bullets and run on water.

The problem is that Chiun, though he is a fantastic character and his chemistry with Remo carries the film at times, is not an Asian man.

Not at all.

In what is either an inspired or monstrously insensitive casting choice, Chiun was played by veteran actor Joel Grey, best known as the Master of Ceremonies in Cabaret and father of 80’s actress Jennifer Grey. The makeup was so convincing that it was nominated for an academy award but lost to Mask.

Adorable! But Adorable =/= Asian.

The use of Yellowface in movies has rarely stirred the same kind of discussion that blackface has, yet it’s no less offensive to the minority it seeks to depict.

Now, there’s a place for it. I think part of what makes a good actor is the ability to create believable characters, and if you can create a character that’s nothing like yourself and it’s still compelling, you’ve done something. It’s probably little consolation that the filmmakers hired one of the best actors of the time to portray Chiun, mostly because there are real Asian actors struggling to get any work in Hollywood.

The bottom line for me is that I didn’t even know a white man played Chiun until I watched the movie last night, and I grew up watching this film. I saw Joel Grey’s name in the credits and thought ‘Huh, I wonder who he plays?’ Then I noticed how there were so few names in the opening credits, had a brainwave, and cringed. “Oh god, they DIDN’T.’

But they did. And you know what? Grey is pretty convincing. It helps that the character is actually well-written: Chiun is Korean, fiercely proud of his heritage and way of life, disdainful of Williams and his lazy American lifestyle, and when he isn’t training Williams is usually seen eating traditional Korean dishes, practicing calligraphy, or watching his soap operas. He is proud of what he’s accomplished with Williams, but would never admit it to the man’s face.

It helps that the film’s writers had dozens of books and some already well-fleshed out characters to draw on–again, it’s hard to accept that they were unable to find a Korean or at least Asian actor to portray Chiun, but I think they were looking for something other than complete authenticity. Remo Williams doesn’t necessarily wink at the audience, but there is some element of self-awareness to the film–it’s in the ludicrous stunts, and just in Fred Ward’s self-effacing, blustery performance. Hell, they got his name off the bottom of a bedpan!

Kate Mulgrew, best known as Janeway from…one of the Star Trek shows that is not Original Series or Next Generation and therefore I know nothing about, puts in a convincing performance as a Major investigating the corrupt arms dealer. It was weird seeing a strong, self-directed woman character in this movie, as entrenched in 80’s action cliches as it is,  but there she was, a breath of fresh, ball-busting air.

Bottom line: Remo Williams is a weird, fun actioner ahead of its time in some ways, and strangely staid in others. Ward has a passing charm as a leading man, if only because of his blue-collar,  hangdog approach to the world, and he clearly has done some of his own stunts–his face is easily viewable in a few scenes.

This movie has me interested in tracking down some of the books. Apparently there are over a hundred in the series by now, and they’ve been going since the 70’s–with such ample room for character development there’s probably a lot of good stuff being missed out on.

Remo Williams is available on Instant Watch.

A New Cult Movie: Black Dynamite

Shockingly, Black Dynamite has not yet received its seating assignment in the Halls of Cult Films; it’s also entirely possible that I am not frequenting the right internet forums or attending the right kind of parties. Either way, it is this blog entry’s intent to spread the word about Black Dynamite and get people watching it, but more importantly, talking about it.

Every few years, the Canon of Cult Movies opens its doors to a new entry; that entry then receives the highly-sought honor of being constantly brought up in Internet film forums, quoted at parties, and turned into memes or Halloween costumes.

Shockingly, Black Dynamite has not yet received its seating assignment in the Halls of Cult Films; it’s also entirely possible that I am not frequenting the right internet forums or attending the right kind of parties. Either way, it is this blog entry’s intent to spread the word about Black Dynamite and get people watching it, but more importantly, talking about it and getting OTHER people to watch it.

This. This here is the movie. It's awesome.

The blaxpoitation genre is one that lends itself to parody almost from its inception: while some lauded Hollywood’s attempt to create entertainment aimed solely at a black audience, many within that audience deplored the stereotypical world of pimps, hoes, drug dealers, violence and bitches depicted. For some, it seemed an attempt to create a ‘get out of white guilt free’ card by filmmakers who wanted to reach an African American audience without actually doing anything different.

But whatever its intent, blaxpoitation films have created an indelible mark on American cinema, love it or hate it. In the case of Michael Jai White (best known for his portrayal of Al Simmons in 1997’s apt Spawn adaptation),  who plays Black Dynamite, it’s roundly a labor of love to spoof the genre. Before the film, he regularly held blaxpoitation-viewing parties at his house, and the film was inspired by his listening to James Brown’s Superbad on his iPod.

There is NOTHING to dislike about this film. Although it explores similar territory as 2003’s Undercover Brother, the latter was based on an existing webcomic; in retrospect UB (though I LOVE IT) felt like an attempt to create an Austin Powers analogue for African American audiences. The modern setting severely limited the possibilities for lampooning the blaxpoitation genre, although the film was entertaining enough in its own right.(I’ve seen ‘I’m Gonna Get You Sucka’ but don’t want to get too far off track–this review is more about Black Dynamite than the blaxpoitation-parody microgenre).

Black Dynamite is ALL blaxpoitation: roundly set against the original 70’s backdrop and even utilizing the same crappy stock footage many of those films used, it indicates an encyclopedic knowledge as well as a love of the genre and distills both into a marvelous recreation. Black Dynamite, with its visible boom mikes, mind-blowing dialogue, gratuitous titties, and sinister plot by The Man could have sprung wholly-formed from the afro of Richard Roundtree. But it’s more than that–it’s a brilliant adult comedy the likes of which I thought weren’t even made any more: one that assumes the audience isn’t just in on the joke, but is smart enough to figure the joke out if they aren’t. It offers a sharp, never-slow take for an audience increasingly numbed by dull entries in action and comedy films.

Black Dynamite bids his bitches adieu.

It’s a joke that doesn’t get old for a minute. Each gag is as unpredictable as Black Dynamite himself, and the cavalcade of supporting characters is perfectly cast. There’s not a weak performance to be seen, and some characters like Honeybee leave you wanting much more from them. Even the action scenes, when they aren’t played for laughs, are meticulous–since White has no less than SEVEN black belts in various disciplines he has entirely earned the right to show off. Also, he’s hot.

Although the idea of an action hero being a closet psychopath has been explored to the point of exhaustion, there are a few scenes that get mileage even from that tired old trope, like this one where Dynamite is leaving new girlfriend Gloria in the care of some hoes he looks after.

The whole movie is a treat. From ‘Who the hell is interrupting my kung fu?’ to Roscoe’s Chili and Donuts to ‘First Lady, I’m sorry I pimp-slapped you into that china cabinet,’ there is nothing to dislike. Just remembering scenes I saw two days ago is making me laugh all over again. That and looking up clips, both original and fan-made, on Youtube.

The only weakness of Black Dynamite is that no one is talking about it.  A few more high-profile cameos might have raised its profile a little, and perhaps spending more than 2 weeks in the theater might have drummed up more buzz about it.

I can’t tell you how often I see a comedy that ‘everyone’ agrees is hilarious and I barely crack a smile–I have an odd sense of humor and I also can’t stand comedies where everyone is an asshole; Tropic Thunder made me laugh, Pineapple Express stole two hours of my life and left nothing in me but hate, and the trailer for Hot Tub Time Machine makes me cringe and wonder if John Cusack owes someone money. So when I find a new comedy that actually makes me laugh, it’s a cinch that it’ll entertain even the most dour of viewers.

Watch the trailer (and other goodies!) here.

Flying Fiery Feets of Fury: Ong Bak & Ong-Bak 2

I was surprised to find that the movie only had a 47% on rotten tomatoes, but on reading some of the comments I realized why: critics complained that the film bore little resemblance to the first movie, which takes place in modern times, and that it didn’t have enough action. But it seems they missed the point entirely–Tien commits some majorly bad crimes as a pirate, and thus his karma (Thailand is a Buddhist nation after all) is stained. Ultimately he is reincarnated as Tien in order to right the wrongs of his ancestor.

When it came time to make another Ong-Bak movie, Tony Jaa and Prachya Pinkeaw had a unique problem: how do you top a martial arts movie whose penultimate stunt has the lead fighting in burning pants.

Tony Jaa FIREPANTS!
Take a moment to savor it

Here’s a link with the aforementioned scene; Fast forward to 1:30, and you might want to mute it too as there’s some kind of annoying music playing. But still–a crazy airborne spin kick with your PANTS ON FIRE is pretty hard to beat.

(Also–Tony Jaa lost his eyebrows during the filming of this scene, and nearly caught his entire head on fire. Also also–Googling ‘Tony Jaa Fire Pants’ did not net the comedy gold I was hoping for.)

In 2003, Thai actor Tony Jaa appeared in Ong-Bak: The Muay Thai Warrior and was touted as the next heir to the Bruce Lee throne. While his actual training background is unclear, what is known is that he taught himself acrobatics by somersaulting off the family elephant (!!!!) into a river, and is credited with bringing awareness of muay thai to a bigger audience than just Asian action movie enthusiasts. And he’s really, really good at what he does.

The story is about Tien, a martial arts-practicing country boy who must retrieve the sacred Buddha head of his middle of nowhere village. The trail leads  him to Bangkok, where he meets up with George, a monk who spurned  rustic village life in favor of drugs, sluts, and betting money he doesn’t have on underground boxing matches. Tien wanders into one of the matches and goes through a giant Aussie competitor as though the latter were made out of fresh creamery butter, and little dollar signs light up in George’s eyes at this walking windfall. Tien doesn’t want to fight though, he just wants to find the missing Buddha head.

Some more stuff happens, Tien’s journey takes him through the seedy Bangkok underworld, which is all filmed to resemble the basement of a Las Vegas bowling alley, he retrieves the Buddha head and finally he finishes his task and attains enlightenment as a monk at the end of the film. Like most Asian action movies, which are much more honest about their purpose,  the story is really just a vehicle for showing off the lead actor’s fighting and stunts prowess.

Which is why the second Ong-Bak was such an unexpected treat: it is actually a prequel which functions as a karmic set up for the first Ong-Bak. OB2 follows the story of Tien, the karmic predecessor to modern day Tien, again played by Tony Jaa and his crazy-ass physical ability, but sets up a plot arc that is one part Thai history lesson and one part sweeping fantasy epic.

Previous Tien is the son of a deposed king, who escapes his father’s murderers only to wind up in a slave camp, fighting a giant crocodile for the entertainment of a crowd with incredibly poor dental hygiene.  He escapes by killing the crocodile, and his prowess as a fighter is admired by Chernang, the pirate king of Garuda Wing Cliff. Chernang takes young Tien under his wing and the latter learns a metric shitton of martial arts and battle tactics from the multicultural crew of pirates and fighters Chernang keeps: everything from Muay Boran (an antiquated form of Muay Thai) to Hung Gar, with weapons training as well. He uses these tactics to become the second-in-command of the pirates, but a memory from his youth of a young girl he became friends with at school makes him realize he has unfinished business in his life. Stuff happens, adventures are had,  but ultimately the story ends unfulfilled–I won’t spoil it, but I found the ending strangely satisfying, if a little abrupt.

People get dirty in this movie. I mean *really* dirty.

I was surprised to find that the movie only had a 47% on rotten tomatoes, but on reading some of the comments I realized why: critics complained that the film bore little resemblance to the first movie, which takes place in modern times, and that it didn’t have enough action. But it seems they missed the point entirely–Tien commits some majorly bad crimes as a pirate, and thus his karma (Thailand is a Buddhist nation after all) is stained. Ultimately he is reincarnated as Tien in order to right the wrongs of his ancestor.

If the first Ong-Bak introduced an unfamiliar Western audience to modern Thailand, the second was a celebration of Thailand’s cultural and historical heritage, even down to the elephants–there’s a scene where showing mastery over elephants proves Tien’s training is complete, and elephants are intertwined with Thai history and culture. The King of Thailand still keeps a herd of ‘war elephants,’ and the great beasts are to be found all over architecture and artwork. Since Thailand was a large nation near the ocean, it has a diverse population, which is reflected by the varied nationalities of the pirates who train Tien–there’s a Japanese guy who trains him in katana and swordfighting, Chinese fighters, and an Indonesian guy. There’s even a scene taking place in the evil usuper’s court showing Thai dancing and pageantry. Which is kind of beyond the scope of the usual action movie–Thailand isn’t just a setting, it’s a costar.

Apparently, the answer to the ‘firepants’ quandary was ‘Elephants.’ This scene was amazing and there was no CG or wires. Just Jaa and his magic powers.

When viewing a foreign film, I tend to take a passive role . Since I’ve never even been out of my home country I assume there is a lot I don’t know about the world and that the film might function as a source of information as well as entertainment. I realize and accept that I am not the intended audience, even if the film has been repackaged and distributed overseas to a foreign audience–sure some stories cross cultural barriers, but ultimately you are viewing the film as a ‘guest.’ Just as you wouldn’t go to a foreign country and bitch that they don’t do things just like at home, why would you hold all films to the same cinematic standard? The Western movie industry might have informed many other nations on filmmaking, but ultimately ours is not the only way to make a film.

The marvelous thing about the Ong-Bak films and part of the reason they’re so popular are the lack of CG and wire stunts. All the stunts are practical, meaning a real dude (usually Jaa since he does almost all his own stunts) is performing. The fight scenes look rough as people really get kicked in the face or chest–sometimes you can see the opponent’s torso folding around Jaa’s foot as the opponent’s body recoils from the impact and you know that poor bastard got hit hard.  Apparently though, there are almost NEVER any serious injuries on the films.

Here’s a completely gratuitous shot of Jaa in the ‘riding the elephant herd’ scene, in which he hops several times from one elephant to another.

This is known as ‘elephant surfing.’ Or it should be.

Note: Tony Jaa’s film career is kind of up in the air, as he became a full-fledged monk in May 2010. I hope he continues making films; he has a real charm and presence on camera. And he’s also just precious–he has a fairly wide acting range, and can either seem like a hardass or a sweet, vulnerable country boy, a necessary part of being an action star; otherwise they’re just a terrifying psycho with superhuman abilities.

He also isn’t a huge guy, so it’s believable when his opponents massively underestimate him–and therefore is so much more satisfying when he effectively ‘bags the trash.’

Photo taken from Cute Overload Martial Arts Demo.