Sunday, April 11, 2010

Film Strips: Fist of The North Star

I am a huge fan of the anime/manga franchise, Hokuto No Ken created by Buronson and Tetsuo Hara, known on American shores as Fist of the North Star, a martial arts acion series set in a post apocalyptic landscape. The animated film, directed by Toyoo Ashida, ranks amongst one of my favorite anime films. The mix of extreme violence, Mad Max style villains and tidbits of melodrama makes for some great entertainment. I had known for some time that a live action adaptation had been made, in America, which seemed to be a direct to dvd release. I did not recognize the vast majority of the cast, (save for Malcolm Macdowell and Chris Penn) and the movie looked low budget at best. This movie was undoubtedly bad...but I have Netflix so I took the plunge and watched it!

The "star" of the film is Kenshiro, the heir to Hokuto Shin Ken, a deadly martial art that strikes pressure points in the body and explodes from within. (this aspect is never explained in the film, I wonder if people who have no clue what Fist of the North Star is all about even know why people are exploding and such) Kenshiro is played by Gary Daniels, who has the physicality needed for the role, Daniels is one jacked mo-fo...but he has the acting range of a cinder block, his eyes constantly bulged in an expression of surprise. The Kenshiro in this film is a pained character, running from his fate to inherit the title of "Fist of the North Star". This differs from his portrayal in the comics, that Kenshiro is a man who has accepted his role as heir to Hokuto Shin Ken, and travels the barren wasteland that is now earth in search of Shin, the man who gave him seven wounds on his chest, in the shape of the big dipper, as well as kidnapping the woman he loves, Julia.

Shin, portrayed by Costas Mandylor, is the master of Nanto Seiken, a brother school to Hokuto Shin Ken. The schools are supposed to exist in balance, and never clash, but Shin crosses the line and kills the previous Fist of the North Star, Ryuken, played by Malcolm Macdowell. Madylor is not too notable as Shin, his best moment is the flashback scene in which he gives Kenshiro his scars. He is relegated in the rest of the film to trying to win the love of Julia, the woman he kidnapped from Kenshiro, and trying to create a new world order. It seems like the character with the most screen time is Chris Penn, who plays a character that is a Pastiche of two characters from the original, Jackal. (His appearance is that of Jagi, his name was taken from Jackal, a scheming enemy of Kenshiro in the comics) Chris Penn might just be the best actor in the film...but he is wasted with awful awful dialogue, and speech after silly speech about killing, without ever actually doing much besides beating a woman. Ken's long lost love is played by a japanese actress, Isako Washio. She does not have a great grasp of the english language, and I find it odd that in a film full of white men playing characters with names like Ryuken and Kenshiro, the one character named JULIA is played by a japanese woman. There are also a bunch of cowering innocents, most notable Ken's child companions from the comics, Bat (played by Ruffio from Hook) and Lin, who was mute in the comics, but in this version is blind instead...ok.

For a movie based off of a martial arts manga, there are not too many good fights. Gary Daniels is a martial artist first and foremost, an actor second....well maybe an actor third or fourth. The fights are shot too close, the action is hard to catch. The way Gary Daniels emulates Ken's Hundred crack fist of the North star is laughable, and he fails to utter the "A-Ta Ta Ta Ta!!!"s that Kenshiro shouts while he pokes the various pressure points on his enemies. When his enemies explode, which happens far too little, it's off screen. That is not what one expects in a Fist of the North Star film. The best parts of the movie are the costumes and the miniatures. The costuming is very faithful to the source material for the most part, Ken's costume is dead on, and in the flashback scenes Shin's boots match the kind he wore in the comics. Little touches like that redeem the film to a slight extent. Certain touches with the miniatures ring true as well, like the iconic shot of a skyscraper impaled with a battleship. Sadly, it is a bad indication when the most positive aspect of the movie are the miniatures and costumes...not that they aren't important!

The ultimate downfall of this film, besides the poor acting, writing, score, direction and fight choreography, is director Tony Randel's lack of understanding the overall story and characters of the original, and what viewers are expecting from a Fist of the North Star film. Instead of making a movie about a guy that can make other guys explode, and paying that forward as much as possible, he gives us a movie with lots of strange speeches, a lead character running from his destiny, as well as what the audience wants to see. The best way to watch this movie is to listen to the audio commentary track, featuring Gary Daniels and director Tony Randel. Gary Daniels comes across as a pretty nice guy, who has a great appreciation for the source material, and considerable knowledge on the subject as well. Tony Randel, on the other hand, comes across as more than a little embittered, seemingly making excuses for some of the short comings of the movie, and making outrageous comparisons to all sorts of art movements and films that have influenced him in the making of this picture...which only underline how bad this film is. He seems to want to prove that he actually made a great film...or if it did turn out poorly it is the fault of the source material or time constraints. In any event, this is a bad movie that could be fun to watch if you're a fan of the comic...but don't expect anything good!