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Monday, August 6, 2012

Godfrey Ho Appreciation Month - Death Code: Ninja (1987)

Death Code: Ninja (1987; IDF)
Written and directed under one of Ho's many pseudonyms we get one of his several collaborations with American actor Mike Abbott.  Today, Abbott is working a number of local jobs as listed on his personal website.  One sit through Death Code: Ninja, and it is easy to understand why.  Now, I'm not dogging the guy, he's awesome.  He's just not awesome the way, say... Humphrey Bogart was awesome.  If you catch my drift.

Death Code: Ninja is a revenge flick mixed in with a spy flick mixed in with a ninja flick.  It's a lot like peanut butter and jelly and pepperoni; one thing just doesn't belong.  Since this is a Godfrey Ho film, you have to have ninjas, weather they are actually relevant to what's going on or not.  The meat of the story involves an agent returning home to his family after a long absence.  Everything seems to be going well for the Ko's until their son is abducted by the hero's former colleagues.  When Ko moves in to face them, he is murdered and this leaves his wife to avenge her family.  From here this portion of the movie is a lot like Kill Bill, with a lone female doing everything she can to take out the men who are responsible for her grief.

The spliced-in sections of the movie star one of Godfrey Ho's recurring actors, Mike Abbott, this time as a villainous gang leader who is dealing with the Triads to sell a map that contains the locations of key military installations in Asia.  The film makes several references to "Star Wars", which was what Ronald Reagan dubbed a strategic missile defense system in a speech.  This system was not only technologically unfeasible at the time, but fiscally and diplomatically as well.  It did fool some folks though, just not the people it was intended to.  This obvious bluff made a special guest appearance in this movie referring to the map as the "Star Wars Map", which would disclose a way around U.S. aerial defenses.

This movie is actually pretty good for Ho.  No, I'm serious.  I like the premise, especially the B-plot revolving around the distraught and bitter widow seeking revenge.  I like how we see her character evolve through the movie.  She has a dark side, and it comes out strong near the end of the film. The A-plot, which was the spliced-in portions with Abbott are really just typical Godfrey Ho shtick.    Brightly-colored ninjas (kind of defeats the purpose) flipping around and fighting.  The dialogue scenes are just off mainly because Mike Abbott is just so damn goofy looking.

I know that isn't fair, and there have been many actors who weren't exactly Elvis Presley who were good because they were strong performers (Edward G. Robinson, Peter Lorre and Spencer Tracy just to name a few).  Abbott just doesn't cut it, I'm sorry.  He just may be the single least-tolerable recurring actor that worked under Godfrey Ho.  He's just... distracting.  Looking at him, I can only recall images of the Beastie Boys Sabotage music video, in which Mike D, Ad-Rock and MCA are sporting 70's hair, thick porn-staches and shades, acting out a cliche'd cop show (that video is epic, btw!).  Still, the way he carries himself in all of these films is pretty hilarious, and that helps with the tolerance level a little.  I love it when he shows up because he's just so damn out of place.

All-in-all, however, Death Code: Ninja is a good watch.  No.  Seriously.  Occasional goofiness and typical Ho ineptitude aside, this is one of his better movies.  The action is well done, the revenge story is engaging and there are actually scenes of real tension here.  I would even go as far to say that I... like... this... movie...  That's always hard for me to say.  (I'm a film buff, I'm supposed to hate everything).  But nay, I say!  I enjoyed Death Code: Ninja.  It may seem a little off if you aren't used to Godfrey Ho's quirks, but this just may be one of his best pictures, judging from a quality standpoint.  This one does lack a lot of the laughs you may get from his more dopey endeavors like Ninja Terminator, but it is definitely a decent 80's Kung-Fu flick.

Godfrey Ho Appreciation Month - Let's Talk About Catman!

Cartoon by Christopher McElfresh

Catman in Lethal Track (1990)

Godfrey Ho is well known for his ninja films, but he also took a stab at other action sub-genres as well.  Case in point: Catman.  Catman is a recurring character who had reportedly only appeared in two Godfrey Ho films.  The first, which told of Catman’s origins is called Catman in Lethal Track (1990).  The second one, which had Catman pursuing a dangerous cult leader with Soviet connections, was titled Catman in Boxer’s Blow (1993).  In true Godfrey Ho fashion, these films were both released under one of Ho’s many, many pseudonyms and were also spliced in with two completely different and unrelated Hong Kong martial arts movies then redubbed to make them both “work... together..?”

Catman in Lethal Track, being the first and most essential film in his repertoire, glosses over the character’s origins and gives us a hint at who this character really is.  Of course, it’s Godfrey Ho so comprehensibility is often cast aside in lieu of more... entertaining pursuits.  Bear with me, here, this is going to get preeeety retarded.

The origins of Catman begin with bravery.  Two agents are walking along when they witness two junkies in the process of robbing a delivery truck with only one piece of cargo.  Are you ready for this...?  It’s a radioactive cat.  Yep.  Apparently we just carry those around in regular old pet cages.  Ho, attempting to get as close to ripping off Spiderman as he can without getting his ass sued off by Marvel Comics, then proceeds to give us some of the most awesome 90 minutes of film you will ever see in your entire life.  I am not kidding here.  I’m only going to focus on Catman’s story points as the irrelevant other film really just detracts from how awesome the titular hero is.  

Anyway, the two agents decide to intervene and, using the baseball bats they were carrying, (Presumably either for batting practice or for their audition of the stage performance of The Warriors) take on the two thugs.  During their engagement with the two punks, one of the agents gets scratched by the radioactive cat and is imbued with superpowers.  Over the course of the next few scenes we get Catman exploring his newfound abilities like the power to turn a TV on and off...

Catman and his buddy go on a crime-fighting escapade and ultimately face off against the gang the thugs they owned in the beginning of the film belong to.  Of course, the heroes (or the screenplay, however you decide to like at it) are really dumb and get led right into a trap, end up chained to trees and are preparing to be turned into ground chuck by explosive rounds.  Catman, however, is invincible and the explosion doesn’t kill him, it merely gives him the cover to slip his chains and vanish.  He breaks his buddy’s chains and runs into the brush leaving his friend to get turned into swiss cheese by about forty rounds of automatic fire.  Of course, the friend is totally okay and gets back up and runs away.

From here we see Catman and his buddy fight off the baddies, picking them out one by one in the clearing of the woods.  Note, judging by the timing of the scenes that led up to the heroes being brought to the woods, they’re probably just about a mile from a major metropolitan area and anyone can hear the reenactment of Platoon that is going on in the city’s backyard.  HA!  But, details!  Who gives a crap about details?!

The second film, Catman in Boxer’s Blow, is a lot weaker, with less fun badness and more sloppiness.  The plot involves Catman and his partner looking into a deranged cult leader who is part of a deadly Soviet ring.  Really, in my opinion, the funniest part of this film is how they start off this movie with their own M, in the form of a chubby politician who gives them their mission.  Boxer’s Blow is just weaksauce, lacking the laughs of the first one, still, it is Catman!

If you haven’t guessed yet, I think Catman is awesome.  He is one of the goofiest superheroes I’ve ever seen played straight and I just love how Catman-actor Jonathan Isgar hams up each performance with the typical hero cliches like posing with his fists on his hips and wearing a getup that is both goofy and epic.  The one liners are pretty great too, spouting off lines that would have been dated in 1965 like, “It looks like we’ve seen the last of our old friend!”  Watch these movies.  Both are in the public domain (as are many of Ho’s films) and are very much worth your time, Lethal Track in particular.  If you like fun, bad action movies, they really don’t get much better than this.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Godfrey Ho Appreciation Month - Robo Vampire (1988)

Cartoon by Christopher McElfresh

Robo Vampire (1988;
Filmark International Ltd.)

Following up the cool-but-silly Full Metal NInja we have Robo Vampire, a movie that is just a silly (if not more so) than FMN but lacks the awesome action we say in the first film we covered.  Robo Vampire was an obvious attempt to cash in on the success of the awesome 1987 classic RoboCop, even going so far as to feature RoboCop himself on the freaking VHS cover!  I mean, look at that freaking epic cover art!  However, we do not get Alex Murphy in this film, oh no!  We get a character we barely care about who dies close to the halfway point of the film and is transformed into an “ robot”, to quote one of the film’s strangest dialogue scenes.

The film’s ridiculous premise involves a vile drug cartel who uses specially trained vampires controlled with talismans to guard their stash of drugs and to act as the cartels private undead army.  When an agent is killed in the line of duty a scientist transforms him into an android to battle the bouncing vampires and to rescue a missing couple in the Golden Triangle, a real-world location in Thailand and an area famous for drug manufacturing and trafficking.  

This is one of those action movies from the 80’s that displays the excess that has become central to the over-the-top, fun action flicks of the era remembered fondly by film fans.  Explosions, blood, bad effects and sloppily-filmed martial arts are all key to the fun in this film.  The fight scenes are, for lack of a better word, crazy.  The goofy vampires hold their arms outward like Boris Karloff’s Monster and bounce sillily towards their target.  It’s hard to watch these guys move without a chuckle, or at least a smile.  All this is before they start shooting freaking fireworks out of their hands, which is obviously coming from sparklers hidden in the baggy sleeves of their robes.  In fact, all of the effects in this film seemed to have been made with leftover fireworks from that year’s Lantern Festival.

Now let’s talk a little about the titular robot.  Do not be confused by the title, as there are no robo vampires in this movie.  a more accurate title would be Robot Vs. Vampires but I guess that was just a little too on-the-nose for Ho.  No, the robot we get in Robo Vampire is a wannabe clone that looks like a cosplayer had his over-zealous but untalented mother make him a RoboCop costume out of duct tape.  As he moves a moderately-talented foley guy hits the middle-C key on his Casio synthesizer and we get poorly-queued mechanical sounds that are meant to convince us that the hero really is mechanical and isn’t just wearing a poorly-fitting, floppy costume.  

The fights, namely the few between the robot and the vampires, are a lot of fun and are where Robo Vampire is at its most entertaining.  Occasionally, the screen will get so dark you cannot actually see what’s happening on screen, but I could attribute some of that to the copy of the film I watched.  Still, what I could make out is pretty damn awesome.  Given the nature of the characters, the vampires and the robot are so stiff.  It is pretty awesome to watch them struggle to maintain that rigor-mortis-like stiffness while they hurl each other about.  Also, oddly, the vampires have a tendency to knock dudes up to roofs of buildings when they hit them, and this is sort of the way this movie goes.  One character motions a hit towards another character and we cut to a reaction shot of what is almost always a stunt guy as he or she flies into poorly-lit set dressing.  It is often difficult to tell where other characters are in relation to one another, as the blocking and lighting obscure almost every fight.  I’m quite positive that much of this obsctruction is intentional, to hide the sloppy makeup and costumes and the shoddy choreography.  This is why my favorite fight in the film takes place on the beach during daylight.  When you can actually see what is going on it is pretty damn funny.  These hilarious fights alone are motivation enough to justify repeat viewings.

What makes this movie work is its ineptitude, and like the other fun “bad” movies like Birdemic and Plan 9, there are hints that the director and actors, despite all of their ineptitude, are really working hard to make this movie happen.  These are the bad movies that are fun because while you pick these films apart and are actually laughing AT them, they have a charm about them.  Robo Vampire is, by its very nature, a cash-in, and like other films that fall into a subgenre known as Action Exploitation (or “Actionsploitation”, for short) it exists to bask in the glory of another movie that is far, far more well-known and respectable than itself.  Still, Robo Vampire is a freaking blast and bad movie fans can easily make a game out of all the bad takes that made it into this movie.  The dubbing is read so poorly, that it can make the simplest line excruciatingly funny simply but its poor tone, or odd timing.  

Robo Vampire is all over the Internet, making it extremely easy to watch.  I was able to find multiple uploads on YouTube alone.  See this movie.  If you love the genre, if you love bad movies, or if you just love to laugh, this is a must-see.  It should be a regularly-discussed film in the topic of films that are so-bad-they’re-good.  Robo Vampire is a great film to springboard uninitiated viewers into the bizarre underbelly of 80’s action.

NOTE: A little editorial correction, in full-disclosure. I am aware that technically this film is directed by Thomas Tang. This is a fair and important fact to point out that I failed to note in the post. Godfrey Ho's footprint is all over this one. Also, there was some splicing in this film as well. Sorry about the bad info. I do my best to research these movies but a lot of the time the more obscure films are hard to find information on.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Godfrey Ho Appreciation Month - Full Metal Ninja (1989)

Cartoon by Christopher McElfresh
Full Metal Ninja
(1989; IDF Films and Arts)

In one of Godfrey Ho’s later spliced works, we see a lot of great imagery.  There’s an evil military leader who wears a Santa cap in one scene, a completely irrelevant white guy in a hot pink ninja costume and Chinese Eegah!  Along the way we get a strange yet surprisingly entertaining piece of cinema.  This is Full Metal Ninja!

Full Metal Ninja is just another one of the strangely-titled ninja films in Ho’s repertoire, this time featuring a Zatoichi-esque swordsman named Eagle who travels a lonely road to save his family that was taken from him by an evil warlord named Lo.  This is not, however, very well explained but this is par for the course with Ho’s narratives.  They are rarely comprehensible and are, more-often-then-not, damn near unintelligible.  

Along the road, Eagle faces many foes, most are fights he engages to help another person, other times they are in retaliation of a previous encounter.  At one point, Eagle comes to the aid of a young woman who would become an important point of contention for the hero, after she invites him into her home for rest.  However, when her father seemingly inexplicably attacks him, she vows vengeance.  After a short time, she becomes entirely irrelevant to the story.

About seven minutes of additional footage was added after the fact starring Ho and Lai’s perennial caucasian action hero, Pierre Kirby.  Kirby’s scenes do nothing but add a little more violence to the movie and ultimately serve no purpose, as the added scenes in Ho’s movies rarely do.  Still, we do see some funny action and we also get a nice taste of the goofy ninja costumes Ho uses in many of his films.  Thus, there are a few laughs to be had at these scenes’ expense.  
Pierre Kirby from Full Metal Ninja,
in all of his hot pink glory!

The fight choreography in Full Metal Ninja, as is the case with most of Ho’s films, ranges from good to bleh.  To Ho’s credit, he is actually able to construct a good scene from time to time, and his movies, as silly as they often are, do occasionally have some good action.  Some of the fights in Full Metal Ninja aren’t bad, and really do deserve some recognition as entertaining pieces of martial arts action.  Some of the cut-in fights are pretty fun too, like when we see Pierre Kirby rip off Raiders with the gun to the swordsman’s gut and when we see him kick down a freaking tree in an attempt to crush his attackers.

All-in-all, Full Metal Ninja is a blast, and while it isn’t good, not by a long shot, bad movie fans and fans of kung fu movies in general will find quite a bit to like about it.  The principle plot, while cliched and paper-thin, isn’t bad and the hero, Eagle is pretty badass, though, you have seen this very same character played better, in far-superior films.  Give this one a watch if you want to have a few laughs and to quench your thirst for fun kung fu action.

Godfrey Ho Appreciation Month - An Introduction

Cartoon by Christopher McElfresh
I hereby dub August Godfrey Ho Appreciation Month and that means lots and lots of awesome ninja action!  The 1970’s were an important time for movies in America.  There were several elements from that decade that contributed to the changes, one being the rise of Independent Cinema, and another was Bruce Lee.  In fact, I don’t think it is often stressed enough just how huge of an impact Bruce Lee had on cinema, not just here in the States, but everywhere.  

Asian cinema began to grow in popularity during the late 50’s thanks to the films of directors like Akira Kurosawa, who created sweeping historical narratives highlighting feudal Japan and showing us a side of a culture we had only really heard about through WWII news headlines and biased word of mouth.  It would be a few years before we got our first taste of Bruce Lee here in the popular TV show the Green Hornet, which aired from 1966-67.  Lee had, by this time, already appeared in a number of films from the growing Hong Kong circuit and was trying to break into Hollywood to better share his love of the Martial Arts and his amazing acting and fighting ability with the world.  
Bruce Lee.  Image from page.

Lee’s films more or less opened the door to the Kung Fu genre to become the powerhouse fans recognize it to be today, and like all other growing fads, there were plenty of others with slightly less talent who would move in to latch on to that success.  One such director out of the 1970’s was Godfrey Ho.  But Ho, along with producer and colleague Joseph Lai, become notorious for re-editing their own movies while splicing in some new footage featuring American actors.  This was principally a business decision as Ho operated under the assumption that by having actors from the US in his films, and giving them top-billing upon release, he would generate a stronger following.  He was wrong.  

Still, Ho and Lai did quite well for themselves.  Just during the 1980’s they released well over 80 films, most were re-hashes and re-edits.  He did do some entirely original films as well, and we’ll talk about those too.  So, without further ado, let us kick off Godfrey Ho Appreciation Month with a film starring one of his favorite Spliced-In Superstars, Pierre Kirby: Full Metal Ninja.