Wednesday, August 20, 2008

PSYCHO KICKBOXER (1997) d. David Haycox & Mardy South “plus a second feature: CANVAS OF BLOOD (1997)”

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Double features at the cinema and at the drive-in, double features on dvd or on videocassette, or the old Ace Double science fiction books I used to devour as a youngster, whenever I see the words double feature my pulse quickens. The idea of getting two of anything for a reduced price or even “two for one” is an American Icon of Consumerism. What it took me a long time to learn, especially after the heady days of two short but good Ace sci-fi stories packaged in paperback form, is that a double feature in film form is not always a good thing; for example, PSYCHO KICKBOXER and CANVAS OF BLOOD. It is hard to find two more different films brought together on a double bill, but they have one thing in common. They are both bad movies that might find their audience and bring a smile to someone’s face that is looking for a specific “bad-movie” experience.

PSYCHO KICKBOXER is the story of Alex Hunter, the son of the Police Chief Alan Hunter, a kickboxing champion, and a nice young man who has just proposed to his sweetheart Julia. Unfortunately Alex’s dad is trying to bring evidence against Mr. Benjamin Hawthorne, the local crime boss who has the Chief’s deputy Harry O’Reilly in his pocket. Chief Hunter is sold out, brutally murdered and Julia is raped and murdered by Hawthorne’s thug “Hawk”, all while Alex is forced to watch. Alex is left for dead and then rescued by Joshua, a former soldier with an axe to grind against Hawthorne. Joshua trains Alex to be as badass a fighter on the streets as he was in the ring and before long, Dark Angel is born, a martial arts vigilante who takes down all manner of street trash, miscreants and evildoers. As Alex climbs the slimy stairway of sleaze to get to Hawthorne, his path crosses that of Cassie Wells, a local reporter who relinquishes her tendency towards yellow journalism to aid Alex in his quest. Finally, Alex has a reckoning with those who tore apart his life, and all of his fighting skills are needed to save himself and those around him.

Despite its multitude of grave weaknesses, there are a couple of things to like about PSYCHO KICKBOXER. When it goes all-out for over-the-top violence and ludicrous gore, there is a sick charm about this film, especially when the ridiculous music loop of “the hero’s theme” cranks up. It is brings to mind Bernie Casey’s line in I’M GOING TO GIT YOU SUCKA, “Every hero has to have theme music”. In addition, despite its 1997 release, between the pastel-colored neon lights that become more pronounced as the film goes on and the big hair of the female “actresses”, I felt like I had sidestepped the time stream and landed in the late 1980s. Not that such a field trip is totally a good thing, but I always like the feel of being swept back to the past. There are some who might find PSYCHO KICKBOXER appealing for the fact that it stars World Kickboxing Champion Curtis Bush and his fighting and training skills are regularly on display. Just as many fighting-film enthusiasts look back wistfully to Jean-Claude Van Damme’s BLOODSPORT (1988) and KICKBOXER (1989), both of which infinitely superior to PSYCHO KICKBOXER, there are some who will probably enjoy the fisticuffs and footicuffs of this feature film. It is at this point that all strengths of the movie end and the mountain of weaknesses must be ascended.

Let us start with the story, which is terribly derivative at best. There is the general concept of “revenge against the scum who killed my family”, which has been used in thousands of police, secret agent and superhero films, most notably the origins of “Batman”. Graft to that idea the aged “master and pupil” plot device, very much akin to Rocky Balboa and Mickey Goldmill from ROCKY or Daniel Larusso and Mr. Miyagi from KARATE KID and you’ve got another oft-used story mechanism that is none the worse for wear. Another insertion to this tired story hybrid would be the masked martial arts vigilante that Sho Kosugi popularized in his NINJA films of the 1980s, and you get the sense that the makers of PSYCHO KICKBOXER had been impressed with many of the flicks they had seen in earlier years. Had the narrative of PSYCHO KICKBOXER been horribly derivative but taut and intense, this movie may have been passable, but there was so much FILLER in this film that I was simply astounded. There were so many drawn-out and pointless dialogue scenes and even the fight scenes became a little routine. To make matters worse, this film was so poorly edited and the structure was so haphazard that I began to wonder if this experience would ever end. The tone of the movie swerved erratically between being outlandish and bordering on humorous and then took itself deadly serious. That kind of failing in a weak film is usually fatal. Going the wacky route and with its tongue firmly in its cheek would have worked best, for I wanted to see more of what the box cover showed, a kickboxer booting people’s heads off! Even the sight of someone’s head being run over by an enraged motorist and the addition of the lovely Kim Reynolds in the role of Cassie Wells was not enough to distract my cruelly analytical thinking skills.

The story was not the only problem. Beyond a bad script, any viewer of PSYCHO KICKBOXER will be treated to the “double feature” of bad acting and bad camera work. When the wheel-chair bound Joshua Collins played by Rod Suitor is your most engaging performer, you’ve got a problem on your hands. Most of the cast played it straight and looked wooden or forced like Curtis Bush who played Alex Hunter or Rick Clark who played Private Eye Jack Cook. Too often there was miserably overdone performances by “actors” like Tom Story who played Benjamin Hawthorne. By the film’s end, I had pulled muscles in my face and neck from grimacing far too often, but that was nothing to compare with the eye strain I suffered from the appalling camera work. PSYCHO KICKBOXER was made in the days before the shakey-cam plague descended upon the film universe, and yet here we see too many close-ups that were far too close, poorly utilized hand-held cameras and atrocious framing. I am not a specialist in filming, but I work with some professionally trained men and have learned a thing or two. When I am seeing live bodies without heads and people’s backs without good reason, someone’s photographic skills are clearly questionable. Most of the sets were just places around town that the film makers found and used because they were inexpensive. Only a couple of nicely shot beach scenes and the “nightclub” set of the final act looked really engaging. Otherwise, there was a deeply pedestrian feel to PSYCHO KICKBOXER, the title character of which was never really a psycho. If he had been a psycho, I would have probably enjoyed this film a lot more.

CANVAS OF BLOOD (1997) d. Joel Denning

CANVAS OF BLOOD is the story of Professor Paul Hanover and his college-age daughter Julia. Julia is deeply involved in preparation for a violin recital/competition when she learns of a cyst on her hand. At this point she becomes mixed up with coke-snorting, drink-slugging, woman-chasing Dr. Miles Houston, who horrifically botches her simple surgery and covers himself for litigation with lies supported by the hospital staff he has bribed with either cash or sex. Enter injury lawyer Flanders Davenport, who promises the Hanovers he’ll get them restitution, but Dr. Houston and Mr. Davenport already have a past of arranging legal outcomes that are financially of benefit, and the deal becomes sweeter when Judge R. Bean, Davenport’s father-in-law, presides over the case. Suffice it to say, the case goes against the Hanovers, and Julia’s emotional state declines even more. Professor Hanover, an ex-Vietnam vet of the Special Forces variety takes it upon himself to exact revenge and does so in a manner that baffles the police and provides the punishment due such corrupt officials.

CANVAS OF BLOOD must have been a very small-time project because most of the cast is also the crew even when you get down to boom microphones, grips, music arrangement, composition and supervision, and every other corner of the production universe. Despite its small and independent nature, there are times when CANVAS OF BLOOD felt like it was trying to be more, but at other times it felt like a close relative of 70s exploitation cinema. The patient, often slow pace to the first two-thirds of the movie as it tried to build itself up to be the “revenge film” it was trying to become was clearly an attempt to be a more serious-minded motion picture. On the flip side, the sleazy actions of the primary villains coupled with the insertions of naked or nearly naked women spliced in simply to intensify the titillation factor felt very much like exploitation cinema of bygone years. When this flick finally got the retribution sequences, it definitely recalled one of the little known revenge classics of the 1980s, NAKED VENGEANCE (1985), with its creative methods of dispatching the villains. The most problematic elements was that the makers of CANVAS OF BLOOD seem to have watched the “King of Filler” cinematic debacle, ROCK & ROLL NIGHTMARE, and learned a lesson that crippled what was a venture with some merit, for this is clearly the better flick in this double feature. When making a film, even if you have a good concept and some good plot devices, if you don’t have a script that gets you to feature length, then you need to rewrite the script and not pad it out to feature length using gobs of filler. Aside from the fact that CANVAS OF BLOOD had a story told in a series of scenes that felt more like vignettes stitched together with some very stretchy yarn, there were immensely long holds on establishing shots, long scenes with some trite and pointless dialogue and even longer scenes that just didn’t make the movie better, like a puking scene, a couple of striptease scenes (despite the fact the girls were hot), MANY walk or drive up to exterior setting scenes and some PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) scenes. While most of these were meant to establish mood or emotional response, extending a scene just to get your film to a nearly 90 minute run time doesn’t make it stronger, it makes it slower and less engaging.

On a positive note, CANVAS OF BLOOD did try to be creative with its camera work. There were moments of stylized slow-motion, multiple or overlaid imagery, solarized effects, interesting camera angles and some EFFECTIVELY used hand-held camera shots. Not all of this worked perfectly, especially when it was used to elongate a scene, but the effort and sincerity was there. In addition, the film makers found some very attractive exterior sets with dynamic architecture in and around the City of Baltimore and its environs. Forceful exterior photography always helps to give a film an air of legitimacy, even when it is a low-budget production. The score and incidental music was surprisingly creative and effective, although not all of it worked either. Still, there were scenes where I found myself impressed with the blend of sights and sounds. Finally, while not Oscar-caliber, the performances of the principal cast members like Lance Irwin and Jennifer Hutt were strong enough to take this film out of the realm of abysmal and put it in the category of “good idea and effort, but needs more polish”. In the end, this film had some potential and was clearly a very early project for some people who have gone on to do other work. The combination of revenge film bloodiness at the end and some exploitation skin mixed in for good measure here and there may be enough to make this an enjoyable experience for those brave enough to try, but it will be a close shave.

PSYCHO KICKBOXER/CANVAS OF BLOOD has a very thin set of extras in the bonus features menu and that is probably for a pair of reasons. First, since this is a double feature, the obvious “bonus” is having two movies instead of just one. Second, since both films were made in 1997 and were low-budget to begin with, dvd extras were probably not high on the priority list. In addition to a plethora of Shock-O-Rama trailers and PopCinema trailers there are a series of three Curtis Bush TV News spots, each about 1 ½ minutes in length. For the Curtis Bush fan, these news spots will probably be a delightful find. One of the saddest realities of the low-budget film world is that once a few years pass and the cast and crew of such films slip into obscurity, they become exceedingly hard to find and putting together extras when sources are a challenge becomes a bigger and more costly project than the original film.

When I saw double features as a youngster at the drive-in or at the theater, unless it was a re-releasing of more classic fare, it didn’t take long for me to realize that there was a reason that the double feature had been arranged. While neither PSYCHO KICKBOXER nor CANVAS OF BLOOD were superior viewing experiences, I also didn’t hate either film and was able to laugh or cheer on rare occasions. The more I consider it, the more this was just like quite a few drive-in experiences and the only difference was that then; I was young, inexperienced and expected little. Now as a jaded and cynical old man, I expect too much more often than I should and could probably have been a little more charitable. Had I gulped down a few beers before watching, I might have been a bit kinder, but then again, alcohol puts me to sleep nowadays and I might not have been able to make it through both films or my review could have turned out incoherent. Which would have been worse I wonder?

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