Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Live Action Manga Blues: Fist Of The North Star (1995) Movie Review

At last, a review that has long been avoided is upon me, and I can only hope to figure out the parlance appropriate in order to best describe my reactions to this lesser-known footnote in the annals of anime-to-live action. But more and more, it feels as if there is no proper way to illustrate that which finds itself capable of maintaining a specific form. Now to keep things completely frank, Tony Randel's Fist Of The North Star is not the kind of movie one reviews, but rather endures. With this in mind, let me recall what all the hazy fever dreamlike tidbits possible without passing out due to rigor-mortis. Let it be known, Hara & Buronson's burly martial arts master did little to nothing to blow my mind. If it does anything at all, is remind us of just how much has indeed changed in this particularly troubled subgenre of film. Sure, we get Dragonball Evolution, but in order for that ball of misery to come our way, Fist had to be made.

Taking a cue from the initial story that begins the original Hokuto No Ken saga proper, earth is now a brutal wasteland after a nuclear holocaust where the frightened and mighty seem capable of lording over the scrappy remains of humanity, many of whom are either living like nomads, searching for what little food & water remains, or are partially settled into encampments such as Paradise Valley. It is here, that the simple drive for survival is clusterhumped by the oncoming forces of Shin, leader of the city known as Southern Cross. With his so-called "Cross Men" marauding and terrorizing the hapless locals, it is in the wayward hands (or dare I say- fists) of young master of the Hokuto Shinken (a deadly assassination art, carried from only one master to another, capable of making body parts not only work against their hosts, but heads to detonate with frightening efficiency.), Kenshiro, to head back into harms way to not only face up to an old rival and former dojo brother responsible for their master's death, but to also be reunited with his lost love, Julia, who still holds hope for something resembling a future for humankind.

With such a rich, wild mixture of post-apocalyptic fantasy & classic martial arts plotting, it seems like in better hands, what we could have here is something close to an nasty-minded, over-the-top action romp, but what we get, is much closer to everything that was pained and often dismissive about comic adaptations in the post-Burton Batman era. With Randel & crew, it's not only clear that this was a production that was beset by funding issues, but is also dogged by a climate that just sees no real understanding, let alone appreciation for such an adaptation to exist. It is something that was prevalent in all major cinematic adaptations of even comics, not to mention animated material, often punctuated with an attitude that only preteens, or neglected children would be interested in such works. As a result, a good majority of these films brought with them a certain element of childishness, and often a sense of being backhandedly dismissive(This was also the dawn of the video game adaptation, a subgenre that in many ways has persisted with this long after comics have reached a level of respectability in Hollywood). Such an attitude persisted in this era, that even the brightest lights of this era bore the sign of studios nervous that their investment would garner anything but the then-considered minority of geekdom.

Right at the offset, it's pretty clear that things aren't working well, as the establishment of the world, something that should be painfully easy to do, is foggy at best. The script by Peter Atkins, Wynne McLaughlin & Randel does what it can to compress the basics of the Shin storyline, but can do little to convince the ears that such verbose, yet almost unnecessarily eloquent dialogue simply doesn't work in Kenshiro's world. And further making matters painful, is the clear lack of confidence in the material outside of the occasional fan-button hit. This is also a film that remains egregious in that age-old offense of casting clearly Japanese characters, and having anglo actors continue to play them despite retaining their original names. So when we look at characters like Master Ryuken, and the aforementioned, Kenshiro..It's more than a little giggle-inducing. And when one considers the with-the-times strange casting of names like Mandylor, Malcolm McDowell, Dante Basco, Big Van Vader, and Downtown Julie Brown (!!), one need no further elaboration. One might not even mind genre favorites like Tracey Walter, and Clint Howard, but the damage is pretty much done once Chris Penn's "original" take on Jagi appears on the scene, unclear of the hell kind of movie he is in.

But let us attempt some fairness by establishing that it isn't as important to checklist what is present, and with is not, as it is to judge the film on its own pluses. This wildly diverse cast can alone make many curious enough. And there is also quite the Hellraiser II vibe, with all the soundstage and lightning work (after all, Randel & Atkins' big claim to fame at this point was working on Clive Barker's cult favorite). One can see the occasional attempt to lend HNK a classy feel, but it's constantly undermined by everything else being said, or punched. And to add greater insult, for a film based on a manga that is legendary for its gore and splatter quotient, this film is bizarrely restrained, making it all the more ineffective as an adaptation. Again, not checklisting here, but a major part of what makes the source material so indelible, is the hyperbolic violence. So without even a hint of what made the original versions, there is little going on here to garner any enthusiasm save for the bizarre ensemble on hand.

 At 90 minutes, the film just drags, struggling to find some manner of pace to boot. It opts for below old Saturday Morning cartoon levels of storytelling, and seems primed to just lie there.

For an action film, it does a fair amount to deliver, but it lives and dies dependent upon the heroes and villains, both of which just spend their time throughout the whole affair in a muddle, and are often completely inert. (at least until an awkwardly placed flashback fills us in nearly an hour into the running time!) Mandylor's Shin often comes off as bored & listless, while kickboxing favorite, Gary Daniels is a completely baffling Kenshiro, a character who is clearly missing a first act, and carries no weight throughout to make any manner of martial arts impress. And in a clear compromise, the film never revels in the explosively bloody action HNK is famous for, it just trudges by as Christopher L. Stone's Hellbound-eque score blares choir overkill throughout. Possibly more a matter of not being able to crack the main characters & their world, and just going with it. As a result, everything else in the piece feels top heavy to lopsided storywise. In fact, inaction seems to be the order of the day with this rendition. With a plot so simple, and such a meandering performance all around, it turns out that it isn't merely the main casting that hurts the central conflict, but it's everything else surrounding it. An adaptation openly distrustful of its audience, and ultimately too boring for camp value, this Fist is caked in marshmallow, the kind that upon getting mildly jawed, can only stick to your face long after.And getting that stuff stuck into such manes of hair..

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