THROWING HANDS: CLOSE RANGE (2015)

December 1, 2015

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As with their blockbuster brethren, direct-to-video action movies thrive on previously existing brands. These cheaply made concoctions can’t afford to license comic books, so they market personas instead, whether it’s Van Damme,  Lundgren, or even Cuba Gooding Jr. While their careers as major stars were brief, fight fans flock to the familiar, so these nostalgia acts are essential to secure production funds, even if they only appear in a scene or two. This doesn’t account for the burgeoning cult surrounding actor-director duo Scott Adkins and Isaac Florentine. Adkins is the rare performer who has made himself a bankable star inside of the DTV universe, despite having only landed bit parts in major films outside of it (The Expendables 2, the upcoming Doctor Strange). He is unknown among the general public, but Adkins and Florentine’s defiantly old-fashioned attitude regarding the shooting and blocking of fight scenes have made them cult heroes among the small but vocal DTV action film fanbase. Close Range is their eighth film together, and it is distilled down to the basics. A revenge drama set on the U.S.-Mexico border, it pits Adkins against a drug cartel, whom he dispatches in a series of increasingly bloody showdowns. The action takes place mainly along one rural dusty road where Adkins goes one-on-one with an SUV and one-on-dozens during an extended siege. Available on VOD and iTunes December 4th, with a limited theatrical run December 11th, Close Range is a satisfying back-to-basics brawler.

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Ninja: Shadow of a Tear (2013) was the most recent Adkins-Florentine collaboration, a spectacular throwback to the martial arts films Cannon was producing in the ’80s. Close Range has more of a Walking Tall vibe, of corruption eating away at a small town until a principled psycho tries to clean it up.  The script was written by DTV vet Chad Law (Van Damme starrer 6 Bullets) and Shane Dax Taylor, which sends sullen ex-soldier Colton MacReady (Adkins) on a mission to rescue his kidnapped niece Hailey (Madison Lawlor). She was nicked by a Mexican drug cartel led by Fernando (Tony Perez), who are using her as leverage to get money owed them from her stepfather Walt (Jake La Botz). During the rescue, Colton swipes a flash drive which contains all of the cartel’s records. So the gang follows him home, and the war will never end until one side is wiped out.

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Adkins is still a work-in-progress as an emoter, but here he isn’t asked to do much other than glower and spin-kick, which is what the man was born to do. Trained in taekwondo and kickboxing, Adkins has the agility of a dancer, and once he gets those long-levered limbs going he is a joy to watch.  Fight choreographer Jeremy Marinas is the one pulling his strings, one of the many great talents coming out of 87Eleven Action Design, the stunt rigging/rental/training organization led by Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, the directors of John Wick. Marinas has Adkins work a lot in close brawling combat here, playing off of Colton’s presumed training as a soldier. This is not a martial arts showcase, but exhibits fights that are going for the quick kill. This is evident in Marinas’ cameo as a hired goon whom Adkins dispatches with a flick of his belt knife, a necessary accoutrement for any aspiring vigilante.

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 Florentine is not a flashy director but a cogent one, wanting his films to be showcases for the stunt performers (he is a trained martial artist himself). He often films in long shot so no body part is chopped off by the frame. His most attention-getting sequence is placed at the beginning, a long take of Colton fighting his way through a hallway and into the cartel’s office. Adkins told the Action Elite site that they had half-a-day to shoot the sequence, managing to get six or seven takes. It is more elaborate than a similar shot in Ninja: Shadow of a Tear, in which Adkins hip-tosses his way through a dojo. In Close Range the action is more fluid, a less-mechanical hitting of spots. But I vastly prefer the more traditional fight sequences in Florentine’s films, in which mini-narratives emerge of strikes and counters. These single take fights are Adkins as battering ram.

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Though he has found success in DTV, Adkins is openly critical of the limitations it places on Florentine and himself. In the same Action Elite interview, Adkins says:

It pushes you more but I don’t think it elevates your game. You get really tired and with that comes lack of focus and you can’t concentrate like you should be. The action stuff is not easy, it’s always hard because we are pushing to do great stuff but it’s something I know like the back of my hand, but then you have to go from spending ¾ of the day doing a really intense fighting sequence in the heat and then have to go and deliver as an actor at a time when you are feeling just shattered and just want to go to bed. I want to deliver the action as much as I deliver the drama and if it’s a low budget you haven’t got the time to always do that – I wish we had more time to deliver on both fronts but that’s also the charm of some of these films. We are almost nostalgic in the way we make these movies. They are like a throwback to the eighties and early nineties.

He also admits that they had trouble reaching the required minimum running time for the feature, necessitating an incredibly long sequence identifying each member of the drug cartel, despite most of them having no lines or identifiable characters. These films consist of an endless series of artistic compromises, but these are the allowances the DTV action film fan makes for any Adkins-Florentine production. There will be stilted supporting actors, threadbare sets, and hand-me-down plots, but once the fists start flying, their artistry becomes as undeniable as a kick to the kidney.

DTV ACTION ITEM: AN INTERVIEW WITH DIRECTOR JESSE V. JOHNSON

March 26, 2013

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To make a thoughtful direct-to-video action movie is about as difficult as recovering from a meaty right hook to the jaw from Stone Cold Steve Austin. Working on shoestring budgets and two-week deadlines, most DTV product is a jumbled mess of plot holes and broken bones. So when a director is able to compose a coherent space and worldview out of such chaos, it’s a minor miracle. With The Package (2012), Jesse V. Johnson joins Isaac Florentine (Undisputed III) and John Hyams (Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning) in accomplishing this magic act. It is a simple story well told, of a mob muscleman (Austin) tasked to deliver a mysterious package to a gangster known only as “The German” (Dolph Lundgren). Its contents are sought by a third gang, and what was a simple job for Austin turns into a war. Johnson strips down dialogue and establishes character through fighting styles: Austin is a deliberate and quiet thinker, waiting slowly for an opening for his devastating punch, while the flamboyant Lundgren speaks in long winding monologues before springing for a quick and outrageous kill. Johnson shoots fights up close but in wide angles, so the need for cutting is minimized and blows register with traumatic impact. Jesse V. Johnson has been a stuntman (The Amazing Spider-Man), a writer (The Butcher, 2009) and a director, and he took some time out to speak to me about his varied career adventures. We discuss Dolph Lundgren’s working methods, the fun and frustrations of working in DTV, and the motivation behind his viral Wonder Woman fan trailer.

One of the things I admire about THE PACKAGE is how the fight scenes tell an ongoing story. Steve Austin’s character moves slowly against quicker opponents, but maneuvers himself around them to deliver one of his knockout blows. Lundgren’s character is flamboyant and dramatic, and his brawls are equally showy.  Are you planning these fight scenes in the writing process, or does this action storytelling occur more on-set, with your stunt coordinator and actors?

I had planned to take my regular fight choreographer, Luke Lafontaine, to Canada with me, but that would have cost the production some of their tax incentive, so I was urged to hire a local Canadian, Paul Wu, a very capable young man. I didn’t write this script, but we discussed the various characters’ fighting styles at some length, and how they should reflect the physical size and fictional background of the key players.

There were two or three rehearsal sessions, where details were further refined, and then we shot.  Steve and Dolph are both so expert in this kind of business, that they adapt their choreography to what they know works for them and always operate within their comfort zone. I hired the adversaries, the other fighters, and was quite involved with Steve’s fights as to where and how they would escalate.

From that perspective, I wanted the adversaries all to look extremely energetic, highly technical and motivated to fight, while Steve’s character actually tries to talk his way out of every confrontation, or looks for a way to avoid the fight. It’s subtle, but I believe it makes him look like the more honorable man.  Without realizing it, you’re rooting for this battle-weary warrior with heart – he knows everyone he tangles with is going to end up in the hospital, there’s really nothing to prove anymore . I know guys like this, they are the calmest, gentlest souls, but God, you know if it came down to it, in a physical confrontation, you’d be hamburger meat in their hands.

With the actual choreography, I wanted to see Steve get punished, violently. I wanted the audience to be pissed, to accept that a line had been crossed and it was OK for this massive guy to get mad and get even. I feel many of these DTV movie fighters can end up looking like bullies – and if there is one thing I cannot stand, it’s a bully. If the supposed “good guy” overreacts, looks for trouble, uses guns that are bigger than everyone else, it’s all material that turns you against your protagonist.

Because of Austin’s incredible size, the audience would buy that he wasn’t going to get KO’d when he got beaten, taking this awful punishment. Then they root for him as he waits for the opportunity to throw this killer haymaker – few actors can get away with that, but if you’ve seen the size of Steve’s arms and hands, you know that is just not a bomb you want coming down on you.

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Dolph Lundgren is very funny in THE PACKAGE. How much did you work with him in hitting this very theatrical tone?

We discussed it at length in pre-production — the silk dressing gown, hair, aged looking skin (to be honest I wasn’t at all convinced it was a good idea), but, when an actor is insistent, you know he’s going to be motivated, and more than anything I wanted him motivated.

When I saw what he was doing with the character, the slightly over the top take, I simply gave him enough room to do what he wanted.  That meant setting the stage in such a way that we could run his scenes as long takes, so the performance could build and remain in continuity – it would have been very difficult for him to have pulled this off without that methodology.

We’d shoot our coverage from the various angles that would allow me to cut in an artistic manner, but we ran all of the coverage as a complete take of the scene.  This sounds obvious, but it is rarely done, in these kinds of movies, it is laborious and will mean a lot more editing, and to a degree more time on set, but boy do your performances improve, and the actors know exactly where they’re supposed to be (emotionally, etc.,) at any time, so they have that look of belonging in their eyes – which can often be a lost, the kind of, “why am I here look” – if you’re not careful it’s all too easy to see it appearing on their faces on a short schedule.

The scene where he makes a fruit smoothie while interrogating a bleeding man really encapsulates the savagery and humor of Lundgren’s character. And also happens to be hilarious. Could you talk about shooting that scene? Did Lundgren improvise at all or was that exactly as written?

That scene was exactly as written by Derek Kolstad, as I mentioned before, there is almost zero improvising with Lundgren, he arrives ready to go and you set the stage in a manner that allows him to work most efficiently.

I feel it is my job as a director to gently feel out how to get the very best from my performers, and then make them feel like I am collaborating with them and watching, listening, able to bounce ideas back and forth, when the opportunity is right.  Compliment and applaud when the timing is favorable.  We talked about blocking (camera movement and placement) a lot.  I wasn’t allowed to show blood when the bullets hit people, so you notice the camera has to get all the way around behind the chair so we only see the back of the chair exploding – you imagine you’ve seen something violent, but there is actually no blood in those hits.

I saw the movie for the first time at a public screening, where there were a lot of WWE fans present. Steve was signing autographs afterward, and they starting laughing during that scene, I thought I was going to get beaten up when they found out who I was – then half way through the scene I realized they were laughing with us, not at us, it was really quite fun. It is very difficult to predict how straight-faced comedy will be received.

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How much input do Lundgren and Austin have in their fight sequences? Is there a lot of give and take between them, fight choreographer Paul Wu and yourself?

These guys both know exactly what they can do well, and where they don’t look good. Lundgren has Barry Evans with him, Barry is a Kyokushin karate master, and has trained Lundgren for 40 years, he watches all of the choreography and has great insight.  Steve has been fighting for a living for thirty odd years, he knows what works best for him – these guys will say if they don’t like anything!

The choreography was quite straightforward, but the dialogue is always tricky, you’re trying to work it into the scene, without it seeming clunky or unbelievable, do you stop and chat (do your dialogue) or chat between punches? You rehearse and sometimes shoot it both ways if you can’t get a meter reading, but usually it is obvious.

With pros like Lundgren and Austin they get it quickly and we all nod our head and know it worked, other times you’re just not so sure.  With the fight itself [between them], we had about three hours, I wish I could have had three days. God, I’d have given you something epic!  But, these films are not laid out like that – they are a Rubik’s cube puzzle, how do you tell your story with flourish and some kind of artfulness in such a short amount of time?

I knew more than anything else I wanted to treat both these guys as mythic adversaries that require a certain kind of photography: low “tracking inwards” shots. The camera is always subservient, always catching up, you never look down on them, they always get the back light, the rim light – they never talk about themselves, have the other characters do that, in fact if at all possible have the other characters do all the talking.  With Steve, I treat him as I would if I were working with John Wayne, and I have read everything I can get my hands on, on that actor.

In the fight scene, they are evenly matched, but Lundgren is ill, and towards the end of the fight he loses steam, and with it the will to live. Austin capitalizes on this, but even then he doesn’t want to kill him, until he is left no choice.

The guys rehearsed this fight scene at quite some length, but, it all went in the trash when we ran out of time, and had to come up with the choreography for the second half of the fight on set – with the producers there, tapping their wrist watches, it was a real shame, but, we’ve all done it before. Lundgren was incredibly helpful, I cannot remember exactly what went down but he came up with a way of getting a chunk of the fighting shot without relighting, something really technical based but a simple solution that neither I or Kim Miles the DP had thought of, and it worked, it was pretty amazing really.

I thanked him profusely afterward, he laughed as he walked away saying something about fifty action movies, five that he directed himself, and that was that.

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How has your relationship been with the producers on your DTV movies? Do you have freedom to shoot what you like as long as you meet your budget?

I had seventeen days to shoot the movie, we had heavy snow for half a day, and lost another half a day’s shooting to corrupted software.  The snow day allowed me to invent a scene with Darren Shahlavi’s character at the gas station, we just kept adding backstory, it was quite funny, we shot it about ten times, adding another line and another line each time, as we watched the snow slowly melt outside (where we were supposed to be shooting a different scene). I think we used the second-to-last take.  The last take was too much like Dr. Evil talking about his childhood in Belgium.

My relationship with my producers is usually good, or I tend not to do the project in the first place. I have become pretty good at judging character, my family are horse-traders and market men, so I think it is in my DNA. I look past the smiles and promises, and try to see what they’re like after the seventeenth hour on a day where we’re going into overtime, if I imagine they’re going to be destructive and spiteful, I move on, or continue with caution – if I can’t afford to turn down the job.

I have never had anything resembling creative freedom on these projects, but depending on how you align yourself with your employers from the start, you can attempt to make a movie close to your ideals, or something that matches the formula of what you would like to see in the theaters as much as is possible – it is bloody difficult, and not at all easy to do this by the way.

On The Package – I had to make a film with an overt killing or beating on every page into a TV safe movie, no blood, no swearing, no nudity, no profanity, or the film was going to be re-edited after my leaving. I knew this from the get go, and that was that, take it or leave it! I knew if there was a director’s cut, it would never see the light of day, so I decided to work within the system – The Dark Knight is a great example of smart violence in this respect – you think you’ve seen something that you really haven’t.  Cause and effect, sound effects, but no blood.  I’ve had people tell me they thought The Package was one of the most violent films they’d seen, I asked them to tell me which scene particularly, they usually describe a scene like the fruit smoothie scene where there is actually nothing shown at all, just implied.

I accepted this lack of blood as a great challenge, and am complimented in situations where people erroneously mention the amount violence in the movie.   It may sound corny and old hat, but given the right stimulus the human imagination is far more explicit than any fake imagery we can come up with.

I am not sure how many more DTV movies I want to make, I am positioning myself to move on to larger movies and intend to.  I am not a fan of watching many DTV movies on the whole, and prefer a film that reaches a larger audience, has greater production values associated with a larger budget and a recognizable cast of characters, but also a chance to work with the very best crews and technicians in the business. It is extraordinarily frustrating at times to work in DTV. We hire the cheapest talent available, while on a studio movie you hire the best available – that may not sound so very different, but it is exhausting to put your heart and soul into a project to be let down by shoddy sound design, or editorial incompetence, or a prop that looks awful, or any manner of other manageable issues.

However on The Package I was very lucky – it was one of those rare occasions when I able to work with a stellar technical crew. We were scheduled to shoot right after the Christmas holidays, so Justin Bursch and Jamie Goerhing were able to assemble a sensational team who otherwise might not have been available to us.  It did mean contending with the inclement weather, of course.  But, Kim Miles and his camera, grip, and lighting team are some of the very best working up there. Kim shot the Mortal Kombat series and always has great energy – I was very lucky to have him on board. My point is though, it is a gamble.

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In many Hollywood action films, the shaky camera, quick edit aesthetic has made it harder to recognize the athleticism of stuntmen. Your work is clear and crisp in comparison. Does your experience as a stuntman inform your shooting and blocking of fight scenes? Do you feel an obligation to show these scenes with clarity so the stuntmen’s work can be truly appreciated?

No obligation to the stunt men per se, I just don’t find that technique very “of the moment”, it feels old hat and passe.  It was/is used a lot to hide the fact that actors didn’t really move very quickly, or look very good; a long lens and a bit of wobble and you try to inject some energy into it.

Handheld has its place for sure, and can be eloquent beautiful and artistic – just don’t use it as a cover for poor choreography. My personal credo is something Robert Capa supposedly said: “If your pictures don’t look good you’re not close enough to the action.” I like to put a wide lens on and get right into the action, where kicks are glancing off the Steadicam, and everyone starts getting irritated, that’s when the footage starts to look visceral and exciting for me.

I competed in martial arts as a teenager, and I loved feeling my heart race, stepping into the ring to fight, it was so intoxicating I was almost passing out before the first punch had been thrown, which was when I usually ended up on my behind.  I wasn’t a very spectacular fighter, but getting hit, and seeing the room spin, watching the guy with pure aggression in his eyes come at you, and not being able to move fast enough to do anything about it, how exhilarating is that?  That’s the surge of emotions I try to recreate in my movie fights. I don’t like watching from afar, there’s no thrill, it’s sometimes necessary of course within the context of the story – but my favorite place to be is within the action, getting spattered with blood and mud and beer.

I read that stuntwork runs in your family, starting with your grandfather. Can you discuss your family’s history in the business, and how you got started in it?

My grandfather was a racehorse trainer and had many wonderful horses, he traveled the world and had many adventures, a real man, quick with his fists but always generous with his time and money to the deserving.  He provided horses to movies as a way of making a little extra cash. He had a wild thoroughbred that a Hollywood movie wanted, and his son was the only person he trusted to ride it, so they gave my uncle Vic Armstrong his first job, doubling Sophia Loren.  He has gone on to have a pretty good career, with an Oscar and BAFTA award.  I started out carrying his stunt bag and storyboarding action for him to direct as he cut his teeth as a second unit (action unit) director.  I went about things slightly differently, I have Irish blood and am slightly bloody minded – obstinate, and like to do things my own way. There were times when I wished I could have kept my mouth shut, and just worked with him, but we have to do what our heart tells us, or we’re nothing but pawns.

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How do you think the stuntman’s job has changed with the evolution of digital technology? What were the major differences between working on an analog blockbuster like TOTAL RECALL compared to THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN?

Total Recall had many Vista Vision plate shots, very early CG work, so it wasn’t totally analog by any means.  Really, regarding the differences in stunts from then to now, you just have to understand what the effect is you need to give, and work within that technology.

For the individual performer, it is really no great change – there are always specifics to what you’re doing, stunt-wise; you have to fall here, miss the sharp edge, don’t knock over the actress, get through the candy glass, don’t go out of frame, and avoid the pyrotechnic effect that will blow up as you hit the ground – it’s very often the same now as it once was.

There is always room for error, and it is simply not an exact science – you do everything in your power to shift the odds to your favor. The survivors, the pros, the super stars within the stunt business know this and are disciplined, intelligent human beings, just as they were seventy years ago.

Wire work has become an incredible art, and is a technology all of its own. it was always there, but so slow and problematic, you’d have to use fine piano wire (Mary Poppins, etc.,). Now it’s easy to remove the wires in post – so there’s no need for many of the old stunt effects – air rams, high falls, Russian swings, these effects can all be achieved far more safely with wires – but they still require a stuntman to test the wire rigs, and more stunt men to rig and operate them.

You must evolve with the technology and embrace it, you keep learning, experimenting and challenging yourself. There’s always a place for the professional, who is willing to risk it all for the shot, he’ll do it within the realms of his experience and will have trained hard and rehearsed, but it’s still a stunt, and he is still a professional (If you cannot do a second take it’s not a stunt but an accident).

There is a great desire right now within Hollywood to go back to a more romantic era of action, to give the audience the impression that it is seeing real danger, to do the stunts without/with less CG, without blue screen, I like this, and think it’s cool, but frankly, I think the investment should be made in character and story telling. The action defines itself from these ingredients first and foremost.

What are the most dangerous stunts that you have been asked to perform? Have you ever turned down a job because of safety concerns?

There used to be a live show guy that would go through the stunt book calling people from A-Z to do ridiculous stunts for cash in hand, in Vegas, diving into six inches of water, dropping inside a car 200 feet onto a pile of cars. I turned those down, I have no interest in risking my life that way.

The stunts I have performed are all valid, but nothing particularly special. I am not a great fan of stunts with animals. Horses are problematic for me, as are diving near sharks, or scrambling through the Thai jungle with snakes and spiders.

Although I don’t remember often being “scared”, just focused – you have to realize you are truly living in these moments of fear, your senses are racing, you can think about seven things at once, and then shut everything down and focus like a laser pinpoint on the task at hand, and time does often feel like it is slowing down, it is a wonderful dynamic rush – your adrenaline is often surging, and you will feel bullet proof, all the rehearsals have created a muscle memory, and you come out of it on top, you’re not dead, and it’s over. Great fun.

I always feel the biggest sense of responsibility when I’m coordinating. I am very protective of my performers. Last year I was directing the action unit on a Russian movie in Utah  [Bilet na Vegas], and we had a ’67 Cadillac convertible careening backwards out of control on the wrong side of a freeway headed towards an eighteen wheeler. The Cadillac was then supposed to swerve, missing the eighteen wheeler, and perform a reverse 180, effectively correcting itself, and drive away.

I was very tense, we rehearsed for weeks, and knew how to do it safely, but there are so many troubling factors: should the Cadillac turn over, could the passengers (all stunt performers) pull their heads down into their laps using their straps and avoid being decapitated, would the eighteen wheeler hit them as they swerved around it….  It was nerve wracking, but it was a very nice one to pull off successfully.

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How did you get involved in the Wonder Woman fan trailer (watch here)? There are still not a lot of strong female characters in the superhero world – did that factor into you taking the job?

I wanted to test a camera system [the Sony FS700] that I was planning to shoot a passion project feature on. I chose to make a short film about one of the most maligned super heroes there is. Talk about messing up a cool character.

She was an awesome hero created in the dark days of WWII to give hope to the women working in the factories, to inspire them to do their bit for the war effort, a woman who didn’t need a man, she was a warrior – great stuff, then in the 80′s they put a non-physical actress in high-heels and had her wobbling around, jumping and rolling, throwing punches like a seven year old (Yes, I realize she is sacred to many 40 year old men, but I have daughters, I’m looking for a role model for them, someone they can root for).

You cannot blend these two versions, so I decided to go back to the original, I put my spin on it, with the scars and bullet-scraped armor, but it was all in the spirit of the original (I laugh hard when people ask why I didn’t stick to the original Wonder Woman!). It was an extremely fun project that really hit a chord. I wish I could afford to do a short or fan trailer every month.

It has landed me more studio meetings than any of my features, so it has served its purpose – thank you, Wonder Woman.

 

DTV ACTION ITEMS (PART 2): INTRO TO STONE COLD STEVE AUSTIN STUDIES

May 8, 2012

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This is Part 2 of 3 in my series on direct-to-video action movies.

In last week’s post, direct-to-video action expert Outlaw Vern modestly proclaimed that, “for the time being I think Stone Cold Steve Austin is the most prolific star with a good track record [in DTV].” In Part 2 of my industry shaking series on DTV fight films, I exhaustively investigate this claim. Steve Austin (born Steve Anderson) was the biggest star in professional wrestling for most of the past 15 years, perfecting the persona of a blue-collar hellraiser with a rabid anti-authoritarian streak. A series of injuries to his neck and back forced him to retire from the ring, and he’s been churning out DTV bare-knuckle brawlers  since 2009, after his one big bid for the theatrical market, The Condemned (2007), failed at the box office. While he hasn’t matched the insanely successful screen career of frequent WWE foe Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Austin is forging a worthy one of his own, albeit on the fringes of the movie business.

Steve Anderson was born in Austin, Texas on December 18th, 1964. His biological father James abandoned the family when he was barely a year old, leaving his mother Beverly to raise Steve and his two brothers. They moved around the state, first to Victoria, then to Edna, each town smaller than the last. In his autobiography The Stone Cold Truth, Austin writes that Eden, “had three or four red lights and a Dairy Queen.” Beverly re-married to a “wonderful man” named Ken Williams: a rancher, country singer and insurance salesman. Ken was also a football player who received a scholarship to Rice University. Steve followed in his step-dad’s footsteps, playing defensive end at North Texas State while nursing a dream to become a pro wrestler. After graduation, he enrolled in Gentleman Chris Adams’ wrestling school, which he attended on his off hours from unloading freight at the docks in Dallas.

A strikingly handsome blonde-haired blue-eyed physical specimen, he was hired by the USWA (United States Wrestling Association). Since there was already a Steve Williams in the territory (one Dr. Death), he had to change his name. Local booker Dutch Mantell suggested “Steve Austin” fifteen minutes before his first match, and it stuck. Initially starting out as a pretty-boy villain (or heel, in wrestling parlance), he rose to be hired by the nationally broadcast WCW (World Championship Wrestling) in 1991, where his narcissistic “Stunning Steve Austin” character failed to create much heat. He was fired after four years.

It was not until 1996, a year into his contract with the then-WWF, that the “Stone Cold” character fully emerged. Drawing on the real-life bitterness from his failed run at WCW, Austin developed a character that embodied a kind of redneck class warfare, a hard-drinking, hard-fighting SOB who would undermine the boss at every available opportunity. His feud with WWF CEO Vince McMahon brought the company record ratings and media exposure, and plenty of opportunity for hilariously over the top subversions – like pouring cement into Vince’s sports car or swatting him over the head with a bedpan. While Austin’s fame also came from his incredible work rate and storytelling ability inside the ring, his ability to tap into underclass rage was the driving ratings force. How could he embarrass the CEO this week?

As the now-WWE (after a tussle with the World Wildlife Fund) expanded their reach, they formed their own production company, WWE Studios. The Rock was the centerpiece of their efforts, as early on it was clear he was eager to expand his brand. They produced or co-produced The Scorpion King (2002), The Rundown (2003), and Walking Tall (2004) before The Rock moved on to bigger things. While The Rock was becoming Dwayne Johnson, movie star, Austin was bickering with WWE’s bookers, and he left the company in 2002 due to a combination of exhaustion and creative differences. By the time they reconciled and he received his one-and-only starring role in a WWE production, in 2007′s The Condemned, he was no longer a cultural phenomenon, but merely wrestling-famous. The Most Dangerous Games-style fight-or-die movie  croaked at the box office, taking in $7 million.

With WWE no longer interested in producing his films, Austin turned to DTV. Joseph Nasser was a prolific producer of trashy TV movies, executive producing such gems as Paparazzi Princess: The Paris Hilton Story (2008) and Anna Nicole (2007), before he started investing in Stone Cold, with whom he has made five fist ballets since 2009. Clearly a canny opportunist, he’s also produced the inspirational religious dramas What Would Jesus Do? (2010) and the Thomas Kinkade-branded Christmas Lodge (2011)). But all we care about here is Austin 3:16, the gospel of which Nasser thought could still make him some quick cash.

The first Nasser-Austin collaboration is Damage (2009) which is also their most ambitious. Austin already has his film persona in place here, which retains the working class resentments of “Stone Cold”, but removes the venomous verbosity. In its place is a bemused, solitary stoicism, a fiercely moral version of Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name, a wise cracking anti-hero haunted by the past, who values family above all (but never gets the girl). In Damage this character is called John Brickner, an ex-con out on parole from a manslaughter charge in Seattle (shot in Vancouver, as always), drifting from low-paying construction jobs to lower paying bouncer gigs. He’s drawn to an underground fighting ring to make some quick cash, and teams up with slimy promoter Reno (Justified’s Walton Goggins) and his gal Frankie (Laura Vandevoort).

Director Jeff King and writer Frank Hannah are proudly bound to the boxing genre, recalling everything from Gentleman Jim to Body and Soul to Hard Times, with its shady promoters, sympathetic diner waitresses, dangerous pier-side brawls, and just to throw in a side of melodrama, a little girl who needs a heart transplant! All of them are on the take, and all have their reasons, up in their ears in debt and lashing out in desperation. Put across with earnest intensity, it honors its predecessors by playing it straight, which works thanks to the authentically idiosyncratic performances, including the manically weaselly Goggins and extra-crusty Donnelly Rhodes as a fallen priest. The fight scenes are blunt but effective, serving their purpose as expressions of character rather than spectacles-in-themselves.

The Stranger (2010) is the kind of garbled mess that gives DTV a bad name, a paranoid thriller that finds an amnesic Austin racing through Vancouver (posing as Seattle) trying to kick-start his memory. Shot in dilapidated offices and back alleys in what looks like a long inebriated weekend, there’s nothing resembling narrative coherence here, although there is the compensatory pleasure of Austin wearing a big hobo beard. Hunt to Kill (2010) is a welcome return to technical competence and satisfying genre kicks. This one is of the kidnapped-in-the-woods variety. Austin plays a divorced Texas (aka Vancouver) border patrol agent haunted (!) by the death of his deputy (a snickering cameo by Eric Roberts),  who is desperate to insulate his teen daughter from any danger. Of course, they both get kidnapped by raving psychos and go on a forced march through the forest. Strictly abiding by the Rambo playbook, Austin picks off the crazies one-by-one, which director Keoni Waxman (Anna Nicole) and Damage scribe Frank Hannah move along with admirable speed and precision. There is an especially brutal and well-staged fight between Austin and kickboxer Gary Daniels, a drama of reversals and counter-moves that looks like a lead-footed ballet.

There is more light-stepping in Tactical Force (2011), which contains an ingenious B-movie scenario from writer/director Adamo P. Cultraro. This time Austin is the head of an aggressive LAPD swat team that act like a swaggering group of Dirty Harrys, destroying property and criminals’ internal organs with impunity. You can sense Austin cutting loose a bit, channeling some of the absurd humor of his later WWE run, as this character has none of the morality of his other films. Here is a purely destructive force, and is the closest thing to a “Stone Cold” performance in his growing oeuvre.

The SWAT team is suspended after an especially creative outing to a grocery store (in which frozen steaks and BB guns are brandished as weapons), and sent for re-training at a warehouse. Unbeknownst to them, Russian and Italian gangs are there violently negotiating for the rights to a mysterious suitcase (whose contents, as in Pulp Fiction’s McGuffin, are never revealed). Provided only with blanks, the SWAT team is suddenly caught in their crossfire, with little hope for escape. Masking the low budget by filming in one location, and pushing the pace through cross-cutting, this is a resourceful, snarky Tarantino clone aided by the athleticism of its cast. In addition to Austin, the presence of MMA bruiser Keith Jardine and martial artists Michael Jai White and Darren Shahlavi add a bit of physical grace to a film otherwise situated as a snappy dialogue comedy.

My favorite of the Austin DTVers might be Recoil, though, which Nasser just released on DVD and Blu-Ray this past March. Dusting off the Phenix City Story and Walking Tall scenario, Austin is a very haunted vigilante stalking through the Pacific Northwest (read: Vancouver) town of Hope to rid it of the vise-like grip of vice imposed by the biker gang “The Circle”, led by Danny Trejo. After his family was brutally murdered by dirtbags, Austin is eager to return the favor. The film is crisply shot by Terry Miles, whose measured pacing and clear lines make even the smallest of exchanges alive with murderous possibility. It begins with some simple match cuts early on, when he rhymes Austin cleaning the muzzle of his gun with the way he stirs his coffee. Then it builds to deadlier range, when Austin’s first encounter on the street ends with muzzle pointed towards a head. This occurs in a quicksilver although perfectly legible series of movements, emphasizing the quickness and lack of consequences to death in this town.

Later, Miley will match a squeeze of lemon in tea to the local handyman Kirby being forced to squeeze his hand around a knife. The everyday is continually associated with violence, seeped deeply into this town’s being. It culminates in an epic slobberknocker between Austin and Trejo, an operatic brawl which starts as a regular grappling, MMA-style battle and ends with two men taping their hands together,  one single mass of fighter, seemingly beating itself into senselessness. Relentlessly logical in its visual connections, this image of, not one man clapping, but one man brawling, is a rather brilliant way for this movie about a town devouring itself to end.

Unsurprisingly, Outlaw Vern appears to be correct. Steve Austin is a reliable indicator of DTV quality, with four out of his five efforts worthy of attention. With two more films scheduled for release this year, The Package  (co-starring Dolph Lundgren), and Maximum Conviction (with Steven Seagal)it will be interesting to see if he continues to elaborate upon his stoic straight-edge persona, or if  the cocky and logorrheic “Stone Cold” that he flashed in Tactical Force will creep back in to once again strike fear into CEOs the world over.

DTV ACTION ITEMS (PART 1): AN INTERVIEW WITH OUTLAW VERN

May 1, 2012

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The summer movie season is obnoxiously approaching, with long-form toy commercial  The Avengers opening on Friday.  While estimable writer-director Joss Whedon is sure to provide a witty quip or two, this is still a 142 minute movie about a gang of men (and a token woman) who wear molded plastic underwear. This 3D “spectacular” will cost upwards of $20, so I submit that your movie dollar is better spent on the humble direct-to-video action movie. With no budget for CG, these cheap-o brawlers resort to showing actual humans moving in real spaces, often with jaw-dropping athleticism. And if not, they are over in 90 minutes or less.

For the next three weeks, I’ll be discussing DTV action movies, in the hopes of bringing more appreciative eyes to this last bastion of  the B-movie spirit. This week, I chat with Outlaw Vern about the general state of DTV movies today, from its studios to its stars. Vern has been a vocal (and very funny) supporter of the genre for years at Ain’t It Cool News and his own popular review site, sparking my own interest in them with his polemical call-to-arms in his write-up of The Marine 2““Some of us are starting to suspect that there’s been a switcheroo, that the DTV format – once designated as a 100% crap zone – has become the more reliable place to find good [English language] action movies.” The more I watch, the more I agree with him.

The interview was conducted over e-mail. Vern writes in very slangy prose, so words like “websight” are not typos, but are his own invention. You can order his book on Steven Seagal, SEAGALOGY, here.

For some background, what year did you start reviewing movies? Could you talk about what led you to start up your site?

I started in ’99. Back then there was this thing on the internet called “newsgroups” which was sort of like bulletin boards, and I would write crappy little movie reviews on the one called rec.arts.movies.current-films. Some of the people there thought what I was writing was funny and sort of sarcastically suggested starting a websight, so I did. After doing it for a long time I got better.

Did you cover DTV movies right from the start, or was there a particular film (or actor) that made you pay closer attention to them?

It started because I had a friend who was hooking me up with screeners from a video store, these were VHS tapes that the studios sent out to promote upcoming movies. Since they were movies that hadn’t come out yet I would write about them and send it in to Ain’t It Cool News. Back then a lot of them were sequels to Wild ThingsCruel IntentionsThe Skulls, stuff like that. I also got some of the DTV Steven Seagal movies and I was really interested in him because of On Deadly Ground so I really took to those and that obsession led to me writing my book Seagalogy.

Unlike the majority of movie writers, you focus a lot on the way action scenes are shot. What do you think are the key ingredients to making a good action/fight sequence? Of those, what do you think DTV movies do particularly well?

There’s no one way to do an action scene but I’m very big on them having a clear sense of where the characters are standing and what they’re doing. That used to be a minimum standard of competence but now it’s kind of rare. A decade ago I was really bothered by fast edits starting with Armageddon, and then started worrying about bad framing after Gladiator, and of course since then you can usually assume that a theatrically released action movie is gonna have most of the scenes shot very close up with a handheld camera so you get confused and aren’t sure if anything cool happened or not. When the director actually makes an attempt to plan out the shots and clearly show people fighting it becomes a major promotional point, like in Hanna and Haywire.

For a long time actually the action was usually crappy in DTV movies. For example Seagal’s action scenes showed way less effort and craftsmanship than his earlier movies. Belly of the Beast and Urban Justice are two exceptions. But in recent years as most of the studio action movies have turned into shakycam bullshit with actors pretending to be fighters instead of the other way around, DTV became sort of the last refuge for American fight movies with the spirit of what we used to love in the ’80s.

Could you give a general DTV lay of the land for newcomers? Who are the major studios, directors and actors?

Millennium Films is mostly theatrical now (they did The Expendables and the Conan the Barbarian remake) but they were sort of the Cannon Films of the early 2000s, pumping out lots of the DTV movies starring Seagal, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Wesley Snipes. Those guys, Dolph Lundgren and Academy Award winner Cuba Gooding, Jr. are the primary marquee names doing DTV vehicles, but of course Wesley’s in jail now and Seagal has slowed down a little to do TV shows. For the time being I think Stone Cold Steve Austin is the most prolific star with a good track record. Most of his DTV movies, especially Damage, are way better than his one theatrical starring role, The Condemned.

WWE Studios (or “the prestigious WWE Studios” as I always call them) made The Condemned but I think they’ve become much more trustworthy in the DTV market. I really enjoyed The Marine 2starring the son of a wrestler I used to watch in the ’80s, and a quirky crime drama called Inside Out where the wrestler Triple-H is reunited with his Blade 3 co-star Parker Posey to play an ex-con who gets mixed up in his friend’s untaxed cigarette scam, but just wants to make pickles [this actually received a limited theatrical release last year -RES].

Years ago it seemed like no DTV directors left a mark on their movies unless it was a mark of suckiness. Now there are a bunch of directors I try to keep an eye on: Isaac Florentine (Undisputed 2 and 3NinjaSpecial ForcesUS Seals II, many others) and John Hyams (Universal Soldier: RegenerationDragon Eyes) are the standouts, but I’m also interested in William Kaufman (The Hit ListSinners and Saints), Roel Reiné (Pistol Whipped, The Marine 2Death Race 2) and Jesse V. Johnson (The ButcherPit Fighter).

Where are most DTV productions shot? And do you know the general budget of most of these productions?

It seems like most of them shoot in Vancouver, but Avi Lerner, founder of Millennium, has a studio in Bulgaria, so a lot of them are shot there. There are a lot of New Orleans productions now too, because of tax incentives they have there. I don’t really know about budgets, but I just looked it up and IMDb estimates Universal Soldier: Regeneration at $14 million, less than a fourteenth what it cost to make Battleship.

What is your opinion of the “mockbusters” that the production company The Asylum  churns out? Most of them look like manufactured kitsch, but is there anything worthwhile or interesting there?

Not that I’ve seen. I mean, I get a laugh from the titles and covers like everybody else, but the parts I’ve seen have been terrible and not in a fun way, so I haven’t had the stomach to venture into that territory too much. People always ask me to review different ones but I’ve never had anyone claim to have found one that was watchable. Actually I thought about watching I Am Omega because it stars Mark Dacascos. That could still happen. My dream is that they’ll start doing rip-offs of Oscar winners. I’d like to see The King’s Peach and The Artiste. The ‘e’ in Artiste would be really small on the cover.

Scott Adkins is a favorite of yours (and now mine). How would you describe his work to someone who hasn’t seen him before? Do you think he’ll ever break through in Hollywood?

Adkins is an agile, high-kicking screen martial artist kind of like a modern Van Damme, but he’s English so he’s more eloquent in our language. But actually I like him best in the Undisputed movies playing a stoic Russian criminal. He has more of a background in straight acting than most action stars, having been on British TV shows like EastEndersand Mile High, but it’s his fighting that has earned him a following. He also kind of looks like Ryan Reynolds, so he was able to stunt double Reynolds in Wolverine.

I don’t know, part of me feels like he’s so talented and likable and has such an impressive body of work that he’s destined to blow up on the big screen, but part of me thinks there’s just not a theatrical market for martial artist stars like that anymore. Jason Statham is probably the closest thing we have to that in the western world.

Of the aging DTV action stars (Seagal, Lundgren, Van Damme and the like), who is making the most interesting stuff? Any recent recommendations?

I think Van Damme is in an interesting place right now, because he turned down The Expendables to do Universal Soldier: Regeneration, which totally paid off because US:R is a way better movie and now he gets a bigger role as the lead villain in Expendables 2. He’s really great in US:R, playing his zombie super soldier character as a burnt out, tragic character yearning for humanity but not able to reach it. Lundgren is also great in that (he’s only in a few scenes because he didn’t turn down Expendables). He’s doing some experimenting now too, he did an indie comedy, he’s got one coming out where he plays a villain, and he’s working with 3 of the directors I listed above, plus doing some directing of his own.

The best recent movie I’ve seen with any of those guys is Dragon Eyes, but Van Damme really just has a glorified cameo as the mentor to Cung Le.

I know you’re an admirer of Isaac Florentine. What makes him in particular such an effective DTV director?

He’s a martial artist himself and also grew up a movie nerd obsessed with Sergio Leone. But my theory is – and I’m not sure anybody else subscribes to this one – that it comes from directing Power Rangers. He did like 60 episodes as a choreographer and directed a lot of those so it just gave him years of practice quickly shooting down and dirty martial arts sequences with very little money. He loves movement and believes in visual storytelling, so he has a very energetic but clear visual style. And at this point he’s done more than a dozen movies but still puts his all into it so he’s gotten really great at taking guys like Van Damme, Lundgren or Michael Jai White and putting them in a story that really emphasizes their badass qualities. Florentine is also the guy that turned Adkins into a DTV icon, first stealing the show in Special Forces, then as the villain in Undisputed 2, who became the protagonist in Undisputed 3.

I think your favorite DTV production is Universal Soldier: Regeneration. Could you say a few words about why DTV doubters should see it?

That movie is the surprise masterpiece I’ve been hoping for ever since I started watching those screeners. It grabs you right from the beginning with this intense kidnapping, car chase and shootout. The cameras are right in the middle of the action but used very intentionally, not shaking all over the place. It takes these silly but fun sci-fi concepts from the original Roland Emmerich movie but treats them much more seriously. The music and sound design seem very influenced by Alien and The Terminator, it creates a really strong, grim atmosphere. The super soldiers are played mostly by MMA fighters so the fight scenes are really brutal. But there’s also something poetic about it, like the scene where Lundgren’s villain has been cloned after being chopped up in the original movie and he knows to fight Van Damme but can’t remember why. It’s this awesome sci-fi action movie but also says something about war taking away our humanity.

From the few I’ve seen, the DTV action movies seem to have a higher level of craft than Hollywood blockbusters because of their low budgets, forcing them to use more analog techniques (like using longer takes with real fighting instead of fx and rapid cutting). Do you think that is true, or am I exaggerating?

It seems that way because you’ve seen the very best ones. I gotta be honest, there’s a lot more crap than there is Undisputed. But I think that’s definitely true in best case scenarios like Hyams and Florentine. I compare them to the standout directors who were taking advantage of the drive-in market to do interesting stuff in the old days.

The standards keep going up for DTV and at the same time the standards for action scenes in theatrical releases are pretty much in the toilet. It’s like you’re not even expected to point the camera at the action anymore. Did you see Warrior? Really good sports drama, but the fighting tournament is literally shot to look like you’re in the audience with shitty seats where you can’t see anything. The fights are choreographed by J.J. Perry, but his work is showcased way better in DTV movies like Undisputed IIThe Tournament and The Shepherd: Border Patrol.

What upcoming DTV movies are you most looking forward to?

I can’t say Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning because that’s hopefully gonna be in theaters. I have some hopes for this one called The Package because it’s Jesse V. Johnson directing Steve Austin and Dolph Lundgren, plus lesser known white guy martial artists Darren Shalavi and Jerry Trimble are in the cast. And I’m hoping Maximum Conviction will be fun because it teams Austin with Seagal. It’s all about team-ups right now.

If you had to select five DTV productions to convince someone to take DTV movies seriously, what would they be?

1. Universal Soldier: Regeneration (2009)

2. Blood and Bone (2009): Michael Jai White is a badass motherfucker who gets out of prison, rents a room and enters an underground fighting circuit on a mysterious mission of revenge. He’s every bit as badass as he was in Black Dynamite but in a non-parody context. This reminds me of the best Van Damme movies like Lionheart, mixed with a little blaxploitation swagger. It has an excellent villain, a surprising use of a Wang Chung song, and great little touches like the legendary Bob Wall cameoing as his character from Enter the Dragon.

3. Undisputed II (2006) and III (2010): – I didn’t really like the original Undisputed even though it’s directed by Walter Hill and has a great performance by one of my favorites, Wesley Snipes. But in the sequels Isaac Florentine replaced the boxing with MMA and came up with the brilliant idea of turning the villain George “Iceman” Chambers (originally Ving Rhames, now Michael Jai White) into the protagonist to fight the Russian prison champ Boyka (Scott Adkins). Then in part 3 Boyka has to rebuild himself after defeat and face the great Chilean fighter Marko Zaror (Mandrill). Boyka is a convicted murderer but you find yourself rooting for him to win and escape.

4. Darkman III: Die Darkman Die (1996): I want to honor the rare good-DTV-sequel. Most are half-assed rejected-TV-pilot-esque rehashings with different characters. Darkman III is one of the rare DTV sequels that seems to fit the medium: it’s certainly not worthy of a theatrical release – I mean, Liam Neeson is replaced with Arnold Vosloo from Hard Target and The Mummy – but gives us an idea of some of the fun we might’ve had if more people had paid to see Darkman like we did. It’s from the writers of Face/Off, and they come up with all kinds of clever and funny things to happen to the vigilante master of disguise. My favorite is when he disguises himself as the villain (Jeff Fahey) to break into his house and walks into his surprise birthday party. Later he impersonates the villain again for the good cause of attending his daughter’s school play.

runners up: From Dusk Till Dawn II: Texas Blood Money and Hostel Part III, both directed by Scott Spiegel.

5. Belly of the Beast (2003): I gotta include a Steven Seagal picture on here. Urban Justice is his most hardcore DTV action movie, Out of Reach is maybe his funniest (he plays an animal rescuer/swordsman who has to rescue his orphan pen pal from white slavers) but I think Belly of the Beast is most representative of the DTV yin and yang: quality action mixed with charmingly sloppy filmmaking lunacy that would never make it to theaters. Helmed by the great Ching Siu-Tung (director of A Chinese Ghost Story, choreographer of Hero and Shaolin Soccer), it brings Seagal to Thailand to save his kidnapped daughter from Islamic extremists, a corrupt general, a transvestite and a sorcerer. There’s a great shootout and a fight in a market where a guy slips on a tomato and lands on a meat cleaver.

ACTION ITEMS: DIRECT-TO-VIDEO, INTO MY HEART

September 6, 2011

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Under the cover of disrespectability, direct-to-video (DTV) action movies are quietly throttling their theatrical brethren. Despite having budgets one-tenth of studio spectacles, these DTV scrappers excel where it matters most: the craft of shooting a fight scene. As the enigmatic film critic/ex-con Outlaw Vern stated in his review of The Marine 2, “Some of us are starting to suspect that there’s been a switcheroo, that the DTV format – once designated as a 100% crap zone – has become the more reliable place to find good [English language] action movies.”

Inspired, I watched Assassination Games (2011, on DVD/Blu today), Universal Soldier: Regeneration (2009) and Ninja (2009), where tussles are filmed to showcase the athleticism of the leads. The threadbare Bulgarian sets are coherently mapped out in master shots, so the close-ups of fist-to-face never throw off the geography of a scene. The camera generally keeps the combatants’ bodies completely in the frame, emphasizing a physicality generally lost in contemporary Hollywood (Jason Statham excepted), in which fights are reduced to a blur of cuts before a hired goon collapses. David Bordwell has identified this rapidly edited style as “intensified continuity”, an amplification of classical style that he places as starting “after 1960 or thereabouts.” These DTVers still fall in Bordwell’s post-1960s rubric, with shot lengths shorter than the classical era, but they offer a more authentic intensity, returning to feats of athleticism over editing.

The workhorses of DTV these days are Dolph Lundgren, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and Christian Slater (who has 8 (!) movies listed as coming out this year), although Jean-Claude Van Damme is ramping up his schedule after his flirtation with respectability in JCVD (Lundgren and Van Damme will also cash a check for Expendables 2).  The only consistent indicator of quality, however, has been the presence of English actor Scott Adkins and Israeli director (and Power Rangers auteur) Isaac Florentine.  Both are trained martial artists, and their work together prizes lucidity of motion above all else (including the plot). In Undisputed II III, which I enthused about last year, Florentine used high-speed cameras to isolate Adkins’ attacks and reversals in an MMA-inspired fight tournament. Ninja, which was made between the two, brings their analytic fighting aesthetic to an urban setting (Sofia, Bulgaria rather unconvincingly standing in for NYC). They ditch the super-slo-mo, but keep the clean lines and camera distance, keeping Adkins’ body whole in the frame, like Fred Astaire demanded of his directors.

Adkins plays Casey, a military brat orphan raised in a Dojo in Japan. His nemesis is Masazuka (Tsuyoshi Ihara), another prized student with daddy issues. Desperate to knock off Casey to impress their Sensei (Togo Igawa), Masazuka breaches the Dojo’s code of conduct and is expelled. Naturally, he dons a vulcanized ninja outfit and becomes a top assassin for an evil corporation (who also operate a cheesy death cult of some sort). These B-DTV trappings are mere action scene delivery systems, and it’s best not to let Adkins emote too much (the most he can muster is a frown of mild indigestion), but once the flesh starts flaying, Ninja satisfies. Take, for instance, the first battle between Casey and Masazuka, at the Dojo. It begins in long shot, with the full width of the house visible behind them.  Florentine maintains the distance as the fight with wooden training swords commences. He only cuts in closer when Masazuka lands a couple of blows, a punch and a slice that shatters Casey’s fake blade. After each of these accents Florentine returns to the long shot, re-orienting viewers to the space. It is a quick but effective sequence, representative of their work.

This can be seen more spectacularly in a brawl in a subway car (caught at the mythical “Noble St.” stop), into which Casey and lady friend Namiko are chased by the evil corporation’s thugs. Here a long shot is impossible, so Florentine opts for measured pans up and down, and a more-frequent use of slow-motion. Every element is isolated and accounted for – you see every gun kicked away and every blow landed. Low angles predominate, in which the ceiling offers another claustrophobic foe. In one sequence a mirthless baddie tosses a civilian towards Casey, and he leaps to avoid her. Cut to him continuing the leap up and through a guard rail, a bit of impromptu parkour. He lands and then ducks as the jerk throws a haymaker towards the camera. Cut to a reverse low angle, and after another block Casey is kicked halfway down the aisle, and the camera follows him all the way as it hovers close to the ground. This is a few seconds of screen time and yet it thrills with its logic and effortless flow.

Logic is not something one would associate with the Universal Soldier franchise, but this Regeneration, the third entry (or fifth, depending on whether you count a few TV movies), is as relentlessly rational a movie about half-robotic super soldiers can possibly be. It “stars” Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren, although combined they don’t have more than 30 minutes of screen time. MMA fighters Mike Pyle and Andrei “The Pitbull” Arlovski, as Captain Burke and the robo-monster NGU, respectively, would get the box cover in an honest marketing campaign. But this is DTV, where descending stars cash checks for cameo appearances and top billing.

This adorable hucksterism aside, Regeneration is a bracingly brutal piece of work, with director John Hyams weaving his tracking shots through the post-Soviet rubble of  Chernobyl (again, shot in resourceful Sofia, Bulgaria). Instead of the detail-oriented approach of Florentine, Hyams opts for a kind of dystopic realism, the creation of the dust-choked atmosphere more important than the grace of an individual fighter. There are very few close-ups and a profusion of long, gliding takes. Peter Hyams (2010, Timecop), John’s father, is the cinematographer, and his technical chops and experience no doubt helped in creating these elaborate shots on a budget.

Its sci-fi trappings aside, this a straight-up kidnapping drama. The Russian president’s two children have been nabbed by an insurgent group, who then take over the Chernobyl nuclear plant and threaten to blow it up, along with the kids, if their fellow rebels in prison are not released. As it happens, they also have retained the services of Dr. Colin (a wonderfully neurotic Kerry Shale), who has the tech to produce the eponymous Universal Soldiers. The U.S. military gets involved, because that’s what they do, and create their own UniSols to free the kids. Van Damme is Luc Devereaux, an ex UniSol dealing with post-traumatic stress syndrome, who now lives in a mental health facility. Devereaux is dragged back into action, and Van Damme plays this broken down hero’s confusion with admirable vulnerability. Of course, once injected with the UniSol drugs, he becomes an insatiable killing machine, which in turn drains the last of the human out of him. It’s a surprisingly sad and despairing film, as much a reflection on Van Damme’s beat-up body as JCVD was.

The action is shot elegantly, never more so than in a minute-long SteadiCam take that opens the final act. Van Damme is blasting his way through the war zone, and sprints right. The camera races along with him. Two masked gunmen blast away in the left foreground, as Van Damme evades their bullets in the background. Then he leaps through a window and disappears. The camera follows the shooters in their confusion, until Van Damme bursts through a door and kills them. It’s surprising that the star is hidden from view in this manner, leaving the audience stranded with two villains, building a mini-drama out of his whereabouts. Instead of cutting to Van Damme’s hiding place, the Hyams clan opt to maintain the tension of the unbroken shot, which then continues. Van Damme pushes forward into building and stalks the hallway. As he inspects an adjacent room to the left, the camera does a 180 and picks him up as he re-enters, swinging right and left to capture the gunfights on either side. Peter Hyams continues these balletic weaves until Van Damme has slaughtered a small village. It is not triumphal but ruthlessly efficient.

Assassination Games teams up Adkins and Van Damme, in a touching DTV passing of the torch. Now, the film received a limited theatrical run in four cities, so it is technically not direct-to-video. However, it was shot in Eastern Europe (Bucharest this time), by DTV hack Ernie Barbarash, so it is at least spiritually direct-to-video, which is all that matters. This is the kitschiest of the DTV films I watched recently, but it still had its pleasures. Adkins plays retired hitman Roland Flint, who gave up his gig after his wife was attacked in the line of duty (she is played, comatose throughout, by Van Damme’s daughter Bianca van Varenberg). When he learns that the perpetrator, Polo (Ivan Kaye), is being released from prison, he re-enters the competitive assassination biz. However! Vincent Brazil (Van Damme) has been hired to kill Polo as well, and sullen stare downs ensue.

Barbarash does not show the visual flair of Florentine and Hyams, with bland, centrally framed (although still intelligible) set-pieces, but he has a playful sense of genre codes that enlivens the proceedings. Brazil is the effete assassin, who hides a secret ultra-modern apartment behind a bookshelf in his grimy Romanian walk-up. He has violins encased in glass, a pet turtle, and is fond of sharpening his knives topless. This is grandly ridiculous, although Van Damme is not one to camp it up. It’s a role that, from the current crop of DTV icons, Val Kilmer could have joyously hammed. Flint is a non-entity in comparison, a guy who loves his wife and not, apparently, much else. And with firearms his weapon of choice, Adkins does not get to display much of his uncanny athleticism, just his impeccable five-o-clock shadow. It’s a bizarre, amiable failure, too reserved to embrace its camp aesthetic, and unable to unleash the kinetic talents of its actors.

Admittedly I’ve only taken a small sample of direct-to-video titles, but there is more visual clarity in this group than in any English-language action movie I’ve seen the last few years (and I like the Luc Besson-produced titles like Taken, Unknown, et al.). The low budgets force producers to return to basics: showcasing the physical gifts of your leads and coming under budget. DTV movies sell based on the actors, so if they want to succeed they need to film them as legibly and forcefully as possible. And with low budgets, directors don’t have the time to shoot all the coverage that Hollywood directors engage in, which gives editors multiple shots and angle to play with in their action scenes. Here they keep film costs low, and give their cutters few options, but grateful viewers like myself far more.

MARTIAL FINE ARTISTS: NINJA II – SHADOW OF A TEAR

December 31, 2013

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The best action movie of 2013 went direct to video. Ninja II: Shadow of a Tear comes out today on DVD and Blu-ray, and was released on VOD earlier in the month. It is the seventh DTV collaboration between director Isaac Florentine and actor Scott Adkins, trained martial artists driven to bring clarity to the fight film, showcasing athleticism rather than camera blur. This is a ninja revenge movie without filigree, stocked with some of the most intricate moves this side of Fred Astaire, arranged by fight choreographer Tim Man. For his dance sequences Astaire demanded to be framed in long shots, to convey the full expression of his body, and Florentine takes a similar approach with Adkins. As Adkins told me in an interview yesterday: “We want to show the action, we don’t want to hide it. We know when they do the shakycam and everything we know why they do that. What you’re actually seeing looks shit, so you shake the camera to give the impression something amazing is happening. All you’re actually seeing is nothing. We try not to do that, we want to show the performers, the highly trained, physical performers, doing what they do best. In a very balletic, graceful way.”

The first Ninja (2009) was a broad comic book-style action movie, with a corporate death cult threatening the safety of NYC. Casey Bowman (Adkins) is the orphan raised in a dojo who tears down their international conspiracies with the help of fellow student Namiko (Mika Hijii). With its kitschy hooded villains and unconvincing Bulgaria-for-NYC locations, it’s more Adam West than Christian Bale, superhero-wise. If you are a cheese aficionado, it is a profound experience, but even if not, there are some miraculous fight sequences, including a closed-quarters slobberknocker in a subway car (which Jason Statham borrowed for Safe). For the sequel, they wanted to make “an old-school martial arts film”, as Adkins put it. This time around Bowman has married Namiko, and they run the Japanese dojo in which he was raised. A brutal attack destroys this idyll, and Bowman snaps, violently tracking down the drug lord Goro (Shun Sugata), whom he suspects of the crime. It’s a simple narrative line to hang a series of wildly inventive fight sequences on.

The revenge plot and use of ninjitsu is reminiscent of the Sho Kosugi ninja trilogy from the 1980s (Enter the Ninja (’81), Revenge of the Ninja (’83) and Ninja III: The Domination (’84)). All three were produced by Menahem Golan and Yoran Globus’ Cannon Films, and it was Golan that gave Florentine his first directing job (Desert Kickboxer  (’92)). Florentine even casts Sho Kosugi’s son Kane in a pivotal role as Casey’s enigmatic friend and rival Nakabara. Adkins comes out of a kickboxing background, so his version of a ninja mixes in showy kick acrobatics with the Japanese styles. His influences also differ from Florentine. While the Israeli-born director emerged out of endearingly slapdash Cannon Films canon, Adkins grew up idolizing Bruce Lee and Van Damme before turning to martial arts himself. A real student of the form, he provided mentioned is fight film favorites to be Enter the Dragon, Fist of Legend, Drunken Master 2 and Armor of God. Their interests complement each other, as Florentine learned how to stretch a buck while Adkins studied how to make bodies look fluid on-screen.

In one interesting experiment they attempt a one-take fight scene, set at a rival Japanese dojo. Casey is there snooping out information on two local thugs, and takes out all five men in an unbroken forty second shot. It is not as ambitious as those of Tony Jaa in The Protector or Choi Min-Sik in Oldboy, but it serves a different purpose. This is not a showstopper but a scene-setter, displaying Casey’s easily snappable temper and setting up the array of fighting styles to come. He takes them out with brawling punches, soaring spin kicks, and a submission arm-bar. Adkins, who admitted to being exhausted after shooting seven takes of this, is a stylistic chameleon, with the looks and power of a brute force brawler but with the ability to execute nimble air strikes. With a handheld camera Florentine and his longtime DP Ross W. Clarkson float around Adkins, a member of the bout rather than an observer. The camera privileges the fighter, but also engages in its own choreography, dancing with the brawlers. Adkins mentioned this camera choreography as party of his fight film philosophy:

A lot of people, the way they get it wrong is they document the action, as if making a documentary. From that side, that side, and that side, with a long lens or whatever. That’s not the way to do it. You need to get the camera in, with the action performers, moving in unison with them, and the camera should be as choreographed as the performers are. You’re part of the action, not watching it from afar. That’s what good action filmmaking is all about.

Their showstopper in Ninja 2 is a barroom brawl that tips its cap to Drunken Master and Kickboxer. Casey is drinking himself into oblivion when a loudmouth drunk splashes him with booze. Needing little provocation, he proceeds to decimate ever loser in the joint. Ninja II uses inebriated fighting to darker comedic ends than the Jackie Chan and Van Damme films. The Chan and JCVD personas have something of the beatific innocent about them, their moves very clearly for show – a performance. Adkins is a more brooding type, his most fully formed character the anti-heroic convict Boyka in the Undisputed series, who fights not to please, but as an instinctual survival mechanism. The same is true of Casey, whose only remaining identity is tied to the dojo and the study of ninjitsu (although the film shows only a smidgen of that form). In the bar he completely loses his self control, revealing himself to be nothing other than a very nimble town lush. But he does it with style. Florentine keeps the camera at a distance, occasionally isolating the more spectacular feats with cut-ins and slow motion. But every blow is visible, as his regular editor Irit Raz (Florentine always works with the same crew) cuts the sequence percussively, on every meaty kick or knife-wielding snik.

There are countless other memorable battles here, which is remarkable considering the restraints of time, money, and Adkins’ aching back, which he seriously injured on the set. But despite all the limitations of DTV productions, Florentine and Adkins are relentlessly pursuing, and have nearly perfected, a pure form of the fight film, returning the genre to its roots as simply capturing fine-tuned bodies in collision-course motion. Hopefully we get to see their next distillation in 2014, with the highly anticipated Undisputed IV tentatively slated for release.

MODERN FIGHT FILMS: THE UNDISPUTED TRILOGY

June 15, 2010

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Walter Hill made his directorial debut with Hard Times (1975), a downbeat portrait of Depression-era gamblers, bare-knuckle brawlers, and the women who put up with them. In 2002, Hill made Undisputed (2002), another fight film, this time set at a prison in the Mojave desert, where a recently jailed ex-heavyweight champ faces off against an undefeated inmate fighter.  Two direct-to-video sequels were spun off of the latter, with the third hitting DVD and Blu-ray this past week (Thanks to IFC’s Matt Singer for recommending #3).

In Hard Times, Hill utilizes the wide 2.35:1 aspect ratio to stage scenes in depth, capturing desperate faces in the background cheering on the back alley brawls. During fight scenes, Hill cuts for strategically dramatic emphasis and spatial coherence. When a bald thug lands a blow, Hill cuts back and forth between reaction shots of Charles Bronson (the new fighter in town) and James Coburn (his shyster manager), interspersed with a long shot of the pier on which the scrum is taking place. In this sequence he efficiently establishes the initial goals of the plot – Bronson will destroy the baldie and set up a feud with his opposing  fur-lined coat wearing  manager.  As a fight scene, it’s crisp and coherent, almost always keeping both men’s bodies in the frame, and switching from low to high angles to establish the shifting fortunes of the “hitters”, as Coburn calls them.

In Undisputed (2002) the tempo is sped up considerably, but Hill maintains spatial continuity and dramatic interest. The opening bout is held in a cage, in which there is a similar scene in Hard Times. In both instances, the set has steeply sloped audience seating, and Hill repeatedly cuts to high-angle shots to establish the carinvalesque, Roman Colosseum feel of the bouts. Undisputed packs in far more exposition though, with repeated flashbacks (in B&W) to the back-stories of the main participants (Ving Rhames’ Iceman and Wesley Snipes’ Monroe Hutchen). There is also repeated use of white flashes to cover jump-cuts, adding to the jittery rhythm. And where Hard Times has sparing use of slow-moving pans, Undisputed utilizes a roving SteadiCam in and around the ring.  But even with all of these MTV style additions, the fights are clearly mapped out, with same use of high-low angles to chart the fortunes of the bout. Hill uses the tools of modern ADD-cinema to his advantage, packing in tons of information, from mobster Peter Falk’s love of boxing (cuts to B&W Joe Louis fights) to the details of Iceman’s arrest.

Hill introduces Iceman as a multplied image on a TV monitor, a media creation. First we see interviewer Jim Lampley behind a screen asking a question, but instead of a cut to Ving Rhames, Hill cuts to the production room and his image on television. This clever reversal sets up the gassy bravado of Rhames’ character – who is constantly performing his “warrior” image. In contrast, Snipes is depicted as all interior, quietly building temples out of toothpicks, and speaking only when absolutely necessary. The film is filled with resourceful character bits like this. Rhames and Snipes are in top form here (while Falk enjoyably swallows the scenery whole), and with Hill and fight choreographer Cole S. McKay’s  lucid setups, Undisputed is an underrated entry in the history of the fight film.

Four years later, production company Nu Image (and their subsidiary, Millenium Films), resurrected the title for a sequel, hiring Power Rangers veteran (and martial artist) Isaac Florentine to crank out a low-budget direct-to-video version. Ving Rhames was replaced by Michael Jai White (Spawn), and was re-located to Eastern Europe to take advantage of their low production costs. Instead of trying to pass off Bulgaria as Venice (as they did in the landmark Sharks in Venice), they relocate Iceman to a Russian prison, where he’s jailed on a frame-up drug charge. It’s a ruse by Russian mobster Gaga (Mark Ivanir) to set up a fight with Boyka (Scott Adkins), the champ on his highly lucrative prison fight circuit, which is broadcast to private gambling clubs.

Where the original Undisputed builds a semi-realistic version of prison life, the sequels focus entirely on the fight sequences. The plot is negligible, the supporting cast weak, but the fighting is superb. The term “B movie” is much abused these days, but the Undisputeds honor the scrappy spirit of the Republic and Monogram studios. Limited to a few sets and a flimsy narrative, these cheapies pack in more impressive physical feats than any Hollywood blockbuster that will be released this year.

Florentine, Jai White and Adkins are all trained in martial arts, and have boxes full of black belts among them. So what the film loses in character detail, it gains in athleticism, incorporating more styles in its version of mixed martial-arts. Once called “human cockfighting” by John McCain, MMA, as promoted by the Ultimate Fighting Championship, has become halfway respectable and turned into one of the most popular sports in the world.

Jai White is a low-key performer, offering none of the sarcastic menace of Rhames, but he’s lithe and powerful in the ring. Adkins is the reason these films got popular, however. A nimble Englishman donning a believable Russian accent, he possesses incredible balance and gymnastic aerial skills – the Astaire to Jai White’s Rogers. Florentine is no Walter Hill, but his fight scenes are clean and economical, mostly keeping both fighters in the frame, with the occasional close-up for emphasis. It’s bracing to watch such simple craft since quick-cut Bourne-clones ruined action movies over the past decade. Florentine’s main tic is using high-speed cameras for super slow motion in capturing Adkins’ more athletic twirlings, moments in which he’s turned into a religious icon of the ring (like the etchings his character prays to before each match). My friend Matt Singer objected to its use in his article, but I think it’s essential to the construction of these films – further illuminating the physicality of the performers.

Listening to their fan base, Adkins is turned from villain to hero in the third, and most satisfying film in the series. Not only does Adkins prove to be an appealingly mulish lead, but the film is filled with breezy supporting turns as well. Mark Ivanir is back as Gaga, played with sardonic charm, and veteran character actors (check out their resumes) Robert Costanzo and Vernon Dobtcheff provide American buffoonery and East-Euro creepiness  with as much bravado as Peter Falk did a crusty old man in the original.

Mobsters from around the world gather for an international prison fighting tournament, betting on the champ from their own country. After getting his leg snapped in Undisputed 2, Boyka is reduced to cleaning toilets while rehabbing his knee at night. He claws his way into the tournament, only to discover it was rigged by the crooked Georgian, Rezo (Dobtcheff). As if pulling names from American Gladiator, he befriends a Yank named Turbo (the I Wanna Be A Soap Star winner Mykel Shannon Jenkins) and plans on upending the whole money-grubbing show.

The tournament shows off a wide variety of fighting styles from a Brazilian’s capoeira to a North Korean’s taekwondo to the unnameable dance-fighting of Dolor (Marko Zaror), the Colombian and Arch-Villain. Prone to shooting heroin in his neck and reading Garcia Lorca under an umbrella shade, he’s a wildly entertaining villain and an equally unpredictable fighter. Pulling aspects of capoeira, boxing, and the tango together with self-regarding verve – his climactic fight against Boyka is an epic and strategic delight. Dolor attacks Boyka’s knee, destroying the Russian’s aerial attack, so Boyka switches tactics and uses a ground game of submission moves and tackles. It’s a nicely thought out piece of fighting psychology that encapsulates the Undisputed series,  a group of films that shows visual and emotional intelligence where you’d least expect it.