Tuesday, April 14, 2009

STREET WARRIOR (2008) d. David Jackson

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Something doesn’t have to be new or even look all that pretty in appearance to be pleasurable. Not too far from where I grew up was an old, somewhat rundown amusement park that had all kinds of aged, rather battered-looking rides, a lot of tired and used but still enjoyably kitschy games and contests and a venerable and rickety-looking, but still thrilling wooden roller coaster. While Whalom Park may not have been as large and diverse as Riverside or as glamorous as Canobie Lake, I still loved it, for the entertainment value of a day spent there was still high despite the fact that it appeared as if Whalom Park had seen better days, as indeed it had. While I have little but absolute contempt for the way many modern action films are shot and edited, they can still be a thrill ride even when the high-octane scenes don’t deliver on the visual appeal in the fashion that they should. STREET WARRIOR, starring Max Martini, Nick Chinlund and Valerie Cruz does not look like ENTER THE DRAGON, but it doesn’t have to when it provides the joy of a story, some eccentric performances and steady, high intensity pacing that feels like you’ve crossed Jackie Chan’s WHEELS ON MEALS with Hulk Hogan’s NO HOLDS BARRED.

STREET WARRIOR is the story of Jack Campbell (played by Max Martini), a tough and principled war hero whose high ideals landed him in military prison and disgrace. After his release, Jack returns home to find his younger brother in a coma after battling for his life in a squalid and brutal fight club called The Gauntlet. Jack begins a violent and bloody search for the people who maimed his brother, but on each step along his path, Jack is outmaneuvered by Mr. Pope (played by Nick Chinlund) and his lovely assistant, Ms. Lee (Jane Park Smith). Mr. Pope, the showman and manager of The Gauntlet, manipulates Jack into fighting in his gory sideshow using the safety of Jack’s abducted and pregnant sister-in-law Sarah as insurance. With the help of attractive convenience store owner Maggie Kuerner (played by Valerie Cruz) and the sleazy nightclub owner George Bautista (Max Perlich), Jack is able to muster enough strength and guts to take on Mr. Pope and his legion of fighters in an attempt to exact vengeance and get justice for all.

There is absolutely nothing original about STREET WARRIOR when it comes to the plot, the character sketches, the action scenes and all the other components of this film except for the modern methods of cinematography and editing, and in the end it is those original elements that are the one and only failure. STREET WARRIOR borrows ideas from just about every single “good man takes on the corrupt monsters” story that has ever been created and then grafts those narrative ideas to professional wrestling and REVENGE OF THE NINJA-inspired fighter caricatures to create a very cartoon-ish but still wildly entertaining yarn about an archetype of good battling for his life and those of the people he cares for against an archetype of evil who is as crooked and loathsome as he can possibly get. The story is almost perfectly paced for there are long stretches of high testosterone fight sequences in the arena, in bars, in offices and in mini-marts. While those moments of intense fisticuffs dominate the storyline, there are also well-crafted and skillfully sculpted dramatic moments that trade on some of the oldest takes on the “hero saga” that exist like “people being used by a powerful and abusive Money Man”, “the inner strength of the hero is sustained by helping others and the love of a good woman”, “the turns of conscience of The Controlled occur after hearing The Word of Our Hero” and SO MANY others. Throughout this already clichéd and yet still smile-inducing lineup are frequent doses of lovely, scantily clad and/or nude and incredibly sexy women as well as trite, witty and wonderful one-liners from each and every character. There are times that STREET FIGHTER feels so very much like all the Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Dudikoff and Jean-Claude Van Damme films I’ve ever seen that I felt like it almost could have been a retrospective, but that is where the acting and character development pieces come in.

The people who cast STREET WARRIOR should be given a medal, only to be surpassed by the screen writers who created the characters who deserve a Loving Cup. The principal actors, Max Martini, Nick Chinlund and Valerie Cruz were perfectly chosen for their roles, their portrayals of their characters who dead-on perfect and it doesn’t hurt to notice that these three are veteran performers with long resumes of TV episodes, small films and other TV Movies in their acting past that helped prepare them for roles that would need some skill to make them work. Mr. Martini plays the part of Jack exactly like every 80s tough guy that ever clenched a fist. Jack is whispery and gravel-voiced, stone faced and implacably tough as well as a man with a silver lining so spotless that he would do ANYTHING to do the right thing. He faces off against Nick Chinlund’s Mr. Pope who is played like an even more sinister Vince McMahon of the WWE, but with so much over over-the-top panache and all kinds of carnival barker glitz and snake oil salesman grotesqueness that he comes close to over doing it, but not quite. There is a fine line between over-acting and putting on a show that is just wonderfully silly and more fun than a barrel of monkeys. Nick Chinlund gives us a man to hate, a sleaze-ball who you half-way cheer for since he is so very amusing. Then there is Valerie Cruz, whose character of Maggie is in some ways the most difficult to play because she can’t steal the thunder of either of the men, but she still has to radiate toughness, exude caring and concern and just ooze sweetness AND sex appeal but without overshadowing Jane Park Smith’s Ms. Lee or all the other luscious beauties paraded about STREET WARRIOR. Somehow, Ms. Cruz hits the gold in the bulls-eye without fail and she completes the triad of main characters brilliantly. When added to the Michael Vick-inspired betting and adrenaline machine of Omar, the skuzzy and yet lovable George and the nefarious tub of lard known as Sheriff Watkins, every character archetype imaginable is dredged up and used flawlessly in STREET WARRIOR. Then, there is the ace in the hole, the fighters themselves, like Roland Kickinger’s “The Showman”, Gary Kaspar’s maniacal neo-Nazi “Baldus”, Danny Arroyo’s high-flying Latino battler known as “Santo” (possibly the closest we’ll ever get to the live-action version of the DC dorky-villain Batroc the Leaper), and a colorful and ridiculous array of others replete with silly and serious fighting techniques, foolish faces and buffoon-ish battle cries, as well as kooky costumes. There is a lot to like about the way this film was scripted, structured and set down for our enjoyment. Even the music was mostly high-energy but not overwhelming, but often interspersed with emotive and soul-stirring strains, all of which were able to add layers of simple “stimulus-response” to this classic brand of cinematic beef stew.

The only problem with STREET WARRIOR was how it was shot during most of the fight sequences, how those fight scenes were edited and occasionally augmented with “effects” and how even here and there those baleful influences could be seen during dramatic stretches of the film, but fortunately not too often. Even then though, there were times when close-ups were too close and stitched together in awkward and ineffective ways. I am sure that the film makers would have said a great deal on a commentary (had there BEEN a commentary) about how “this is the way to do things for the movie lovers of today” and I am sure that they may be right or at least have a point. So many of the younger set have been raised on video games, music television and all kinds of other confusion-inducing visual chicanery that they are thoroughly fooled by these kinds of film-making techniques, but not me. I wanted to really be able to see the action and have it shot like the Hong Kong films of yore or the Thai films of today. Had STREET WARRIOR had maintained its comic-book charming story and looked like CHOCOLATE or ONG-BAK, this could have become an instant classic of the “big, dumb action” film genre and taken its idiotic place alongside COBRA or COMMANDO, even though they are different kinds of films. The spirit of STREET WARRIOR is still the same. Sadly, it was not to be and the poor choices of the director and his photography crew keep this movie from being as much fun as it should have been.

The other major deficiency of STREET WARRRIOR is just that, it is lacking something, BONUS FEATURES! I suppose I should be thankful that I got to see stereotypical fighters battling each other surrounded by a bevy of beauties, many of which were naked throughout their scenes, but I still feel like I have been robbed to a small degree. When you’ve got a director like David Jackson who has worked on TV Shows like “Swamp Thing”, “Lois & Clark”, “Nash Bridges” and “Smallville” as well as many other projects of the television and movie kind, he must have some things to say. There is a veteran cast of actors who would have also been worthwhile to interview or hit up for a commentary. There is a smorgasbord of unsettlingly attractive women who would have been perfect for some kind of wacky extra like “strip cinema-trivial pursuit” or something like that. Make something up folks! I recently watched a disc with a “faux-extra” that was a great way to end my viewing experience. Since my eyes were not fully satisfied with the action scenes in STREET WARRIOR, the best way to “bait and switch” is do something salaciously gratuitous in the supplements. Why RHI-TV still doesn’t get that is totally beyond me. All I got for “extras” on this DVD were three auto-play trailers I had already seen. Not smart guys!

If you can look past the way STREET WARRIOR was shot and you hunger for the action flicks of yesterday that had a “feel good” ending that you can see coming miles away as well as loads of caricatures and comics/cartoon-inspired goodies and baddies, you’ll probably like STREET WARRIOR a lot. I know that I went into this film expecting almost nothing and got a pleasant surprise. However, on reflection, I shouldn’t have been shocked or even startled. There is something about fighting that we can’t give up as a species no matter how hard we try civilizing ourselves. There is something about “the hero tale” that never gets old no matter how many times we’ve seen it. Just like Whalom Park, which changed very little over the nearly thirty years that I went back to it again and again, there is something about a comfortably entertaining option that may not be the most glamorous of thrills, but we’ll take it. If that is the kind of Saturday afternoon viewing experience you want to have, then STREET WARRIOR is probably your cup of tea.


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