Release Date: February 15th, 1976 Directed by: John Cassavetes Written by: John Cassavetes Music by: Bo Harwood Cast: Ben Gazzara, Timothy Agoglia Carey, Seymour Cassel, Azizi Johari, James Lew
Faces Distribution, 135 Minutes
“I’m a club owner. I deal in girls.” – Cosmo Vitelli
This has been in my Criterion Channel queue for far too long. In fact, it was in my FilmStruck queue before that service went kaput and Criterion struck out on their own with their current service in an effort to fill the voice leftover by AT&T killing FilmStruck and crushing the hearts of legit cinephiles that can’t get their fix with crappy Netflix originals.
Anyway, this isn’t a rant about the loss of FilmStruck, I already talked about that here. This is a review of a pretty solid neo-noir picture directed by the multitalented John Cassavetes.
Cassavetes doesn’t star in his own picture, though. Instead, the film is led by Ben Gazzara, who became one of Cassavetes’ favorite actors to work with. This was the second of their three pictures.
Gazzara was fucking dynamite in this as his character, Cosmo Vitelli, a cabaret club owner with a serious gambling problem. He finds himself in great debt and with that, to square up his bill with the mafia run casino, he is pushed into murdering a Chinese bookie that is cutting into the mob’s business.
Obviously, he doesn’t want to commit murder but when he drags his feet, the mob does their damnedest to make him see things their way. So he does eventually go to the Chinese booker’s home to begrudgingly kill the mob’s rival. Things don’t go as smoothly as he’d like and I’ll leave it at that because I don’t want to spoil the details.
There are a lot more layers to this than just the main plot thread, though. We get to really know this character and see the world and his profession through his eyes. He’s a nice, likable guy that loves women, loves the nightlife but finds himself in way over his head because he couldn’t stop himself from digging his own hole.
This is a great character study piece while also being a solid 1970s neo-noir picture. And with the neo-noir style, you obviously get a film that’s visually vivid and beautiful to look at in spite of the gritty, dirty city that these characters operate in.
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is a really unique and genuine movie. Cassavetes wrote a compelling story with a really likable character and his direction behind the camera was executed tremendously well.
While I don’t know if this is something I’d revisit in the future, unless I was showing it to another neo-noir fan, it still provided me with a worthwhile and entertaining experience. It also showed me that Ben Gazzara is a better actor than I’d previously given him credit for only seeing him in smaller roles and as the baddie in Road House.
Also known as: John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China (complete title) Release Date: July 2nd, 1986 Directed by: John Carpenter Written by: Gary Goldman, David Z. Weinstein, W. D. Richter Music by: John Carpenter, Alan Howarth Cast: Kurt Russell, Kim Cattrall, Dennis Dun, James Hong, Victor Wong, Kate Burton, Donald Li, Carter Wong, Peter Kwong, James Pax, Suzee Pai, Chao-Li Chi, Jeff Imada, Al Leong, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, James Lew
TAFT Entertainment Pictures, Twentieth Century Fox, 99 Minutes
“Sooner or later I rub everybody the wrong way.” – Jack Burton
There are very few films I watched more than Big Trouble In Little China once it was out on VHS and I rented it to dub a copy. New release VHS tapes were like $99 back then and I was still way too young to get a real job.
Anyway, I fucking loved this movie when I was a kid and it was really my introduction to John Carpenter. His films before this one were all hard Rs and things like The Thing and Prince of Darkness would’ve given me nightmares for months. Yeah, I loved horror by this point but Carpenter’s hardest films were still way too hard for my 8 year-old brain.
I really loved this because of Kurt Russell. I can’t say that this was my introduction to him but this is probably the first film that made me know who he was.
Beyond Russell, I just loved the giant martial arts battle in the alley and found myself completely in love with this movie as soon as the three elemental dudes showed up along with the evil wizard Lo Pan. That whole sequence and its special effects blew my mind.
By this point, I’ve seen this movie dozens of times. However, it’s been at least five-to-ten years. I’ve felt the itch to revisit it for awhile now and I had to wedge it into my schedule.
I still love this movie. It’s action packed, has a great adventure, cool fantasy and horror shit, a very charismatic lead and it’s a hell of a lot more fun than anything Hollywood puts out today.
I actually enjoy Kurt Russell’s Jack Burton even more now. I think that’s because he’s heroic as hell but he really is this bumbling idiot that fucks up more than he actually does badass things. As a kid it was all just for a laugh but as an adult, I see that he wants to be that heroic guy but he gets in his own way. However, when it really comes to pulling off the big win, the dude succeeds and wins the day… and the girl. Well, until he gets in his own way again.
All the core characters in this movie are great from the heroes-to-the villains and even those with small one-scene roles are pretty memorable.
Back in the day, I loved all the monsters in this movie and seeing them all these years later, they’ve held up well. While Carpenter was working with a fairly decent budget on this movie, there were still limitations. In spite of that, the practical effects still look superb and the not-so-practical ones still pass the test.
Big Trouble In LittleChina is a movie that has a little bit of all the things I was into when it came out. While my tastes have evolved, these are still things I enjoy.
There are very few movies that are as fun as this one.
Release Date: October, 1989 Directed by: Andy Sidaris Written by: Andy Sidaris Music by: Gary Stockdale Cast: Dona Speir, Hope Marie Carlton, John Aprea, Bruce Penhall, Al Leong, James Lew, Andy Sedaris (uncredited)
Malibu Bay Films, 92 Minutes
“The cancer clutches ever tighter at my heart.” – Admiral Kenji Inada
This is the fourth movie in the twelve film Triple B Series by director, Andy Sidaris. While I enjoyed the first three quite a bit, by this point, I feel like these movies are losing steam.
Savage Beach is just more of the same but it also lacks the energy and charming amusement that made the first three films so enjoyable.
Now I still like this picture for the most part but it has more working against it than for it and it’s the first movie in the series to feel that way to me.
This is simply a movie about taking scantily clad (and sometimes naked) hot chicks, giving them guns and giving them stuff to shoot at or blow up.
We’re reunited with the same female duo that has been featured in the previous two movies but without the film’s trailer pointing that out, I either wouldn’t have noticed or cared. These movies are full of so many generic Playmate types that they all just blend together in my brain.
Overall, this is lacking in action when compared to the earlier movies and it all seems a bit pointless.
If I’m being honest, as much as I like Malibu Express and Hard Ticket to Hawaii, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to get through all twelve of these films when I’m only at the fourth one and it feels extremely derivative and kind of boring, even with boobs and explosions.
Rating: 4.75/10 Pairs well with: the other 11 films in the Triple B Series by Andy Sidaris, as well as the American films of Amir Shervan.
Release Date: December 15th, 2018 Directed by: Vito Trabucco Music by: DJ Disco T. Cast: Al Leong, John Carpenter, Jeff Imada, Dave Callaham, James Lew
Yinzer Enterprises, 110 Minutes
Growing up in the ’80s, I saw Al Leong everywhere. I didn’t know who he was; all I knew was that he’s a really unique looking dude that would show up as a henchman to the villain in just about every iconic ’80s action flick.
As I got older, I learned more about him but still, most people just saw him as that dude that popped up all over the place, who eventually got killed after doing some badass shit.
So I’m glad that this documentary was made, as the guy deserves to be showcased and to have his story told to all the fans who have appreciated him over the last four decades.
Leong’s story is much deeper and richer than I had expected and it was fantastic getting to hear him talk about his life in his own words.
We also get to see his colleagues discuss him and his career. It’s really cool seeing John Carpenter talk about Leong and why he used him in his films so often.
Overall, this isn’t a great documentary but it will satisfy fans of the guy’s work or just those who remember seeing him everywhere.
Rating: 7.25/10 Pairs well with: other documentaries about character actors and filmmaking in the ’80s.
Also known as: G.I. Joe 2 (working title) Release Date: March 11th, 2013 (Seoul premiere) Directed by: John M. Chu Written by: Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick Based on:G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero by Hasbro Music by: Henry Jackman Cast: Dwayne Johnson, D. J. Cotrona, Byung-hun Lee, Adrianne Palicki, Ray Park, Jonathan Pryce, Ray Stevenson, Channing Tatum, Bruce Willis, Arnold Vosloo, Walton Goggins, Elodie Yung, Rza, Matt Gerald, James Lew, James Carville (cameo)
“I came here when I was fourteen, with a life expectancy of thirteen. I was bounced around from home to home until this… became my home. Guys would line up outside that door to fight me. They whooped my skinny ass so much I started to enjoy it. Until one winter, I grew eight inches, gained sixty pounds, punched a guy so hard he couldn’t move his arm to tap out. Then when the Joes came recruiting to the hood, I’d already beaten down half of it. I became a Joe to serve. In the field. So if we’re fighting uphill, we take the hill.” – Roadblock
I really wish this movie would have done much better at the box office because it course corrected in a great way and fixed the mess that was G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra.
On one hand, this is a sequel but on the other hand, it is also a soft reboot. It doesn’t necessarily ignore that the terrible first film exists, it just buries it and moves on. But as awesome as this turned out, for the most part, the damage from the first picture was so severe that this Dwayne Johnson and Bruce Willis action extravaganza couldn’t save the G.I. Joe franchise on the big screen.
That being said, it still isn’t a perfect G.I. Joe film but it felt like a good bridge between the shit this crawled out of and the great movie that could have followed, based off of what this picture set up for a future story.
To start, Dwayne Johnson was genius casting and this should have been the perfect franchise for him to lead. While he isn’t exactly who I would’ve envisioned for Roadblock, he definitely filled the shoes of leadership after Duke presumably died and General Hawk also presumably died or went on vacation somewhere.
Other than Duke and Snake Eyes, there aren’t any other G.I. Joe members from the first movie present. I’d like to think that maybe some of them would’ve been back in a third film, as none of the actors were necessarily bad, it was just the first movie that was a massive pile of shit.
The film does bring back Cobra Commander, Storm Shadow and Zartan on the Cobra side of the equation and we do get a brief glimpse of Destro but he’s essentially left out of the main plot, in what I would presume means that he would’ve been back in a third film with his Iron Grenadiers in an effort to start a Cobra Civil War, which was a great event in two different G.I. Joe comic book series.
While I could speculate on what the future of this franchise could have been for quite awhile, this is a review of this film and not a wish list for a movie that will never happen.
So getting back to the film, it flows nicely and I like that it was kept pretty grounded and didn’t try to overdo things like its predecessor that tried to be more like Iron Man and Transformers than G.I. Joe.
My only real complaints about the film are the same that I have with most modern big budget blockbusters of recent years. The musical scores are dull and not memorable or iconic, the fight scenes are hard to follow due to super fast edits and shaky cams, and the film’s visual look is boring, sterile and generic. These are all things that could’ve been easily tweaked and would have made this a much better picture.
Now I mostly like the story, other than I’m tired of killer satellites as weapons of mass destruction. This is a trope that has been done to death more times than a beaver has built a dam. Although, I will give the writers props on coming up with a fairly original version of a killer satellite.
Unlike the first movie, I loved the look of the characters, especially Cobra Commander. I don’t know what the fuck he was supposed to be in the first film but he looked like Doctor Satan from House of 1000 Corpses trying to cosplay as Glacier from World Championship Wrestling in the ’90s. Now Cobra Commander looks right. In fact, by the end of the film, he looked fucking perfect.
They also refined the look of Snake Eyes and got rid of his weird rubber lips while making Storm Shadow look more badass. Plus, the introduction of Firefly was great, he looked great and he was played by Ray Stevenson, who is pretty damn great in everything. I was kind of pissed that he got killed but this is a comic book movie and they could easily bring him back if they made a third picture.
For an old school G.I. Joe fan, this is a movie that just felt right. Especially, after the first one was a massive misfire that insulted the fans and confused the normies. It gave me hope because it showed that Hasbro and the studio listened to the fans’ criticisms of the first movie. Less than ten years later, studios just blame fans as being “toxic” while dismissing their criticisms because apparently fans are idiots and studios are run by geniuses that think that failure somehow means success.
In the end, I wish that this would’ve done better and that it would’ve kept the G.I. Joe franchise on the big screen for years to come. Granted, this could’ve easily just gone the route of Transformers and gone right back to being an embarrassing piece of shit.
I guess we’ll never know.
But I also guess we’ll see how Hasbro and the studio handles the material once it is rebooted. Rumor has it that G.I. Joe will be part of a larger connected universe with Transformers, M.A.S.K. and other toy franchises but fuck all that. I just want them to make a good, consistent G.I. Joe movie series before they try to go too big and ruin the whole thing for another generation.
Rating: 7.75/10 Pairs well with: the early days of the original Marvel Comics run, as well as the first two seasons of the ’80s G.I. Joe cartoon.
Release Date: March 29th, 1993 (Greece) Directed by: Bobby Jean Leonard Written by: John Bryant Hedberg, Greg Latter, George Saunders Music by: Daniel May Cast: David Bradley, Lee Reyes, Pat Morita, James Lew, Norman Burton
Cannon Films, 102 Minutes
“Whoa!” – Hiro
I am a massive fan of the American Ninja franchise. So it sort of pains me to admit that I actually didn’t even know about this film until it was out for about a decade. There are reasons for this though, so let me explain.
First off, the film does not fit in with the first four movies in the American Ninja series. It is its own separate story and David Bradley plays a completely different character than his more famous Sean Davidson from the two pictures before this one.
Reason being, this was originally developed as a film called American Dragons. Ultimately, instead of piggy backing off of the American Ninja vibe, as Cannon did with American Samurai (also with David Bradley), they just threw up their hands and called this American Ninja 5. Sadly, this could have evolved into its own series had Cannon kept the original title and then didn’t go belly up almost immediately after.
Secondly, this film did not get a theatrical release in the United States, at least that I know of. It came out on video in international markets in 1993 but didn’t actually hit U.S. video store shelves until 1995. And even though I worked in video stores in that era, I never came across it. This may be because of Cannon Films ceasing to exist and their later films lacking real distribution.
This chapter in the series gets an incredibly bad rap. It has a 2.8 on IMDb (that’s out of 10) and no real critics featured on Rotten Tomatoes have even reviewed it or rated it. As a film, all on its own, I think it is better than the two previous American Ninja outings. While the fourth one featured David Bradley and the returning Michael Dudikoff, it completely missed the mark. The third film (and Bradley’s first) was really kind of a dud with really bad fight choreography and lacking a formidable evil ninja.
I think that people dislike this film solely for the reason that it isn’t a part of the universe from the first four movies. I get that. However, as a standalone picture, it is the best ninja movie that Cannon did since American Ninja 2: The Confrontation.
The film features Bradley, who I always think is pretty solid, and adds in Pat Morita (a.k.a. Mr. Miyagi), James Lew and Lee Reyes (the younger brother of Ernie Reyes Jr. and son of Ernie Reyes Sr.). Morita is barely in this movie but it opens up the idea that he could have been bigger going forward, had this turned into its own little series.
The film also looks better than the previous two. It gets out and gets more exotic than just trying to have South Africa and Lesotho stand in geographically for whatever random country the previous three films took place in. This chapter was filmed in Los Angeles, Venezuela and Italy. It was the best looking film since American Ninja 2 and it did a good job utilizing its surroundings.
The action was also better than the other Bradley films and this thing just feels like it is better directed, better acted and better produced.
It still isn’t a good film but it certainly isn’t a horrible one. While the villainous Viper came off as cheesy and hokey, more often than not, his Wolverine-like claw made up for it. I also liked that they got more colorful with the ninjas in this film. We’ve had colorful ninjas throughout the American Ninja series but in this film, they seemed to be utilized more. The film sort of plays like a late 80s/early 90s action video game. It really got me nostalgic and I had to fire up Bad Dudes on my original Nintendo.
I like American Ninja 5. At least, I like it more than 3 and 4. It is hard to top 1 and 2 but this was David Bradley’s best effort. However, like part 4, I was really missing the presence of Steve James. And it would have been cool to have seen Dudikoff thrown back in, even if this wasn’t a real sequel to part 4.
Release Date: November 10th, 1989 Directed by: Bob Radler Written by: Paul Levine, Phillip Rhee Music by: Paul Gilman Cast: Eric Roberts, James Earl Jones, Sally Kirkland, Phillip Rhee, John P. Ryan, John Dye, David Agresta, Tom Everett, Louise Fletcher, Simon Rhee, Christopher Penn, James Lew
The Movie Group, SVS Company Inc., Kuys Entertainment, Taurus Entertainment, 97 Minutes
“Yeah! Drop him like a toilet seat, Tommy!” – Travis Brickley
The late 80s were rife with modestly budgeted martial arts movies. While Stallone and Schwarzenegger owned the action genre at the box office, it was the Van Dammes, Seagals, Dudikoffs and Kosugis that killed it on video store shelves. Best of the Best tried to capitalize off of the martial arts genre and it actually did a pretty fine job.
Phillip Rhee, one of the writers, plays the role of Tommy Lee. While he is not the main character, he does have the most important story, fights in the grand finale and would go on to star in all four pictures in this film series.
The top two stars were Eric Roberts, who has an electric mane in this picture, and James Earl Jones, who played the coach of Team USA. Chris Penn is also in this as one of the American fighters, as is John Dye, who would become most famous for his role on the TV series Touched by an Angel.
Eric Roberts was a pretty solid lead and really believable as his character. He had an intensity and charisma unmatched by many actors in the martial arts genre. He did return for the second film but wasn’t in the third or fourth.
James Earl Jones was great as the coach. This is actually one of my favorite Jones roles, as he nails it every time he is on the screen. His passion as coach came out in every scene and he had an energy and earnestness that couldn’t be ignored. His mission to prepare the American fighters for the fight of their lives was a well-balanced game of tough love and respect. He was like the Vince Lombardi of karate.
The fight choreography was much better than average for this sort of picture. The action felt authentic and real. It was fluid and dynamic unlike the later films in the American Ninja series that seemed to stop caring.
In this film, a team of Americans is selected to go to South Korea to fight their best martial artists. It is mostly a competition for bragging rights but in the end, the film displays an amazing exchange of sportsmanship between the fighters of both proud countries. In fact, if you don’t cry like a little bitch at the end, then you aren’t a real man. Shit still gets me every time when you see these fighters earn each other’s respect.
Best of the Best wasn’t as big of a hit as it should have been in video stores. It was overshadowed by the growing popularity of Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal. However, it still did good enough to warrant three sequels.
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