The Orange County Screenwriters Association
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    Mark Sevi

    Mark Sevi

    12 years a slave

    THIS ARTICLE NOMINATED FOR AN EDITORIAL AWARD by the HOLLYWOOD REPORTER!  
    Congrats, OC Screenwriters Board Member and contributor, Lorenzo Porricelli!!

    “12 Years a Slave” is perhaps the most important film produced since we began watching “motion pictures” in the penny slots on boardwalks, carnivals, and city emporiums in the 1880’s.  It is based on the 1853 memoir by Solomon Northrop, a free man from Saratoga, New York, who was tricked, captured and made a slave for twelve horrendous years. Northrop is played by actor Chiwetel Ejiofor in a performance done with such magnificence it removes the actor from the role, for what is memorable is the depth of character and the story his work tells us of a terrible human experience.  
     
    Movies are entertainment first, entertainment that provides two hours of escape from our lives and allows us to enter the lives of characters on the big screen. Movies involve us in the adventure of the story and the ramifications of issues raised, whether comedy or drama, just as those first penny slots involved its first viewers in the real life and death battle of a cobra and a mongoose. 
     
    However, there are some movies since film began that have been epic in meaning and revelation of the human experience. From “Birth of a Nation” to “Schindler’s List,” and more, these films have been important films because they affected and/or changed or challenged generations of mindset on issues, i.e., the Ku Klux Klan in “Birth of a Nation,” and the Holocaust in “Schindler’s List.” Both films took us past what the public had settled as the comfortable mindset on those subjects, a mindset that didn’t disrupt our then present-day lives, and those films forced us to make moral decisions on life and death questions.  
     
    12 Years a Slave” presents the absolute truth of slavery’s work - the humiliation and murder of the body, mind, spirit, and soul of the slave. Its portrayal of the sick minds and perverted bodies of slave owners(they couldn’t have possibly possessed a soul) is the true story of a brutality that shames mankind. It is a film where the lack of humanity in the minds, words, and actions of slave owners and slave sellers at that time, the common white Southerners, is displayed in their treatment of black people as animals and beasts, and worse. 
     
    And in spite of its most atrocious horror, it is entertaining first, endearing us to the characters, and forcing us to go along for the most riveting, cruel journey we have ever experienced with a film, and possibly in our lives, as these people we come to love are abused beyond imagination, and we sit with disbelief, hoping for escape, for help, for even a minute of peace for the people we meet – for they are that first – people - people who become slaves. And we watch their lives drained of life by the mean, sadistic lifestyle of the pre-Civil War South, with not a minute lived without drama and fear. There were no good masters.  
     
    The film is based on the autobiography of Solomon Northrop, the free man who led a rather middle class life in Saratoga, N.Y., a man who owned a home, had a wife and two children, and who played the violin professionally. That was until two con men tricked him into joining their musical troupe for a few weeks, and used that to lure him to Washington DC, where they sold him to a slaver. And from there, the story goes to several plantations, from horror to horror, from story to story, and reveals the absolute viciousness of both the men and women who owned slaves. 
     
    Yet with all the repulsion of the actions in this story, from verbal abuse beyond description, to whippings to rape to murder to lynching, we feel these things but don’t see the actual blows most of the time. But the way the scenes of misery are shot, from raising an arm with a blunt club, to the sound of wood breaking on a woman or man’s head, we don’t realize we haven’t seen it,  we believe we have seen it because we felt it the shocking horror of the abuse in our imagination, and more importantly, in our spirit. 

    cast and crew

    The man who brought this to the screen, director Steve McQueen, is a black man from Amsterdam; an American director could not have done this without the salacious episodes necessary for such a film in America. And while the violence is perhaps the most horrendous in film history, and committed against women and children as well as men, it is hardly salacious, but is in fact so truthful and horrifying that the viewer is stunned and shocked, and that is the intent of the director and actors and screenwriter – to share the horror of perhaps the worst episode of human degradation and death in world history. That is a large statement, but the Holocaust, as awful, sick, and perverted as it was, had 6 million victims, American slavery had numbers far beyond that. But more than that, it forces us to feel, to know, to cry, to hurt, for there is no escape from the awful truth, because it is a story we live through - barely. 
     
    McQueen, who speaks with a British accent, said that when he discovered the book by Northrop he read it and his first thought was it had to be made into a movie. But his second thought was that people everywhere knew of the “Diary of Anne Frank,” yet no one he sought out had heard of “!2 Years a Slave.” McQueen felt it was just as important, because it shared the experience of when it was so fresh in Northrop’s mind. 
     
    And McQueen made this film in what I would call a grand literary style, like “Grand Hotel,” and “On the Waterfront,” so classy, so big, with ideas and themes beyond our known human experience. It is one of those perfect films, where every piece he directed comes together with flawless precision – from the screenplay, to the actors being magnificently intense, to the vehicle of our journey   - the cinematographer’s lens - perhaps the most important piece in any film. McQueen’s direction to the cinematographer was to force us along for the uncomfortable trip, and we are expecting to be released from the brutality at every new scene, until finally the lens wears down our hope, just as we see happen quickly to so many characters in the film – slaves - becoming attached to us in body and soul. It is an enrapturing experience and a pin could be heard dropping on the theatre floor. 

    Lupita Nyang'o

    The film’s music is by Oscar winner, Hans Zimmer, with both a score and songs that make the journey an unconditional experience that possesses us, haunts us, and Zimmer builds the tension and pain of every scene with his edgy work, as the score brings to us the realization that the music of the times was an entertainment for the whites, but a sad escape for slaves, sung during hard work, death, and hopes to be with the Lord. 
     
    The cinematography is by Sean Bobbitt. And how effective are his shots, shots that linger in scenes when the horror of the moment is over, but he won’t allow us to move on, he leaves us there, swamped in the truth, forced to face and accept it. Brilliant is his reasoning. His method makes the story so powerful, intense, horrible, unbelievable, tragic - all at once - with his nuanced shots that capture the essence of the souls of the characters as well as the depth of cruelty in slavery and the misery of the sweaty existence in the South.  
     
    The acting is beyond first class – I would give everyone in the film an Oscar. We are first introduced to a person we probably do not want to travel with, Solomon Northrup, as portrayed so magnificently by Chiwetel Ejiofor, who has played leads in movies as varied as “Redbelt,” “2012,” and “Amistad.” Here, he portrays Northrop at first as slightly too refined, which was admitted to proudly by Northrup in his memoir.  That slight affectation makes his fall from all that is good and beautiful so much more abject and profound. His fear and his disbelief are so well acted, I believe any of us would have the same reactions if that was our life, and it was happening to us – there is no moment where we can disagree with his character – or any other for that matter. 
     
    The acting is brilliant, from Paul Giamatti, Alfre Woodard, Benedict Comberbatch, Michael Fassbender, Dineen Taylor, Paul Dano, Sarah Paulson, even Brad Pitt, who also was one of the film’s producers, and many more in roles so small and so varied but such essential roles that paint the portrait of hate in America that is still with us and has not been fully resolved by the national conscience.  They all appear so natural in their roles even through the shocking words they speak, but truthful to the standards of the times. The belief that slavery ended in 1865 is a lie, a subjective myth. Slavery’s ramifications and animosities are still with us, and the reflection of those ideas portrayed by these actors surely is as recognizable as the hate that still burns in America, disguised in self-righteous pontificates, who claim to save America by denying compassion to the poor. 
     
    But while every actor is magnificent, the work of first time film actress, Lupita Nyong’o will shock you, knock you out, there are not words to describe the power and beauty of her performance as she portrays Patsey, a slave woman used and abused and beaten and raped at will by an owner. She begs Ejiofor’s character to hold her head under water till she can no longer breath as she is too much a coward to do it herself as an escape from the life as chattel, a scene that births within us a battle of emotions – a sorrow for her and great anger within that has grown through the course of the film to a hatred for these awful “masters.”  Nyong’o’s work alone is worth the price of admission, and if she doesn’t receive an Oscar for her work, the system is not worth having. Nyong’o can take you along on a moment of useless laughs with a neighboring black woman who has married the slave owner, to extreme pain from her master’s brutality,  and she does it in a brief second with a glance, her eyes so dead, her simple statement of a woman without hope, reluctantly existing.
     
    The screenplay is by John Ridley, an author who has written several bestselling novels in addition to screenplays, including “Red Tails” and Oliver Stone’s “U Turn”.  He took Solomon’s book and wrote it into a story that could be filmed and yet rush at us like a knife stabbing our hearts with the absolute misery and condemnation of what happened to Northrop. Ridley’s beautiful choice of words and actions, so aptly carried through by the actors, the music, cinematography, set design, every aspect of the film, all work off his script that has brought to us again the importance of the word “slavery,” a word long hidden and put on our national back shelf. Ridley is brilliant in his use of dialogue, perhaps even spectacular.  His characters are real and what they speak and do is truth in not only that time but in this day also.  For in this time of politicians who seek to deprive people of voting rights, of food stamps, of obtaining work visas, and whose lack of depth is seen in their shallow slogans of hate on FoxNews, it is a time for America to choose right or wrong – what is right is moral, and anything else is evil, it was true then, it is true now – truth doesn’t die, truth doesn’t lie.
     
    Effective and cutting is Ridley’s display of how slave owners preached the gospel to slaves, and then beat them, raped them, murdered them, subjected them to all manner of abuse, and yet claimed to be Christians.  Slavery happened in a time in our country’s history and cost us millions of lives in the Civil War, but the issues of slavery have never died, and Ted Cruz types and his ilk in the Tea Party, are those that espouse slavery – albeit not in physical entrapment, but of another kind, and just as horrible – a degradation of humans, reducing them to items on a budget line. And they shout the words of Christ, forgetting so easily he stated that what we do to the least we do to him.
     
    If I sound as if I merely liked the movie that is hardly the truth - the truth is that this movie will touch the core of your being, if you let it, it will give you a beautiful story inhabited by people we love and hate. But when the film ends, its truth has come too close to abandon it in a movie theatre, and it needs to be shouted from our hearts, and lived in our walk, for darkness and hate is upon this world again, there is no safe place, and it is our time, our moment, to challenge evil and stand for what is moral and good and compassionate and right, and to prove love conquers all.   

    Comment on this or any article welcome on our Facebook Page HERE.

    warren lewis brunch

    On Saturday the 28th screenwriter Warren Lewis ("Black Rain" "13th Warrior") regaled a group of 50 filmmakers and writers with stories about his life, career and opinions on the future of the industry he helped shape.

    Warren is both 'old school' and new school.  He harkens back to a different time when A-list movies were ubiquitous; where a writer could create something spec and sell it in a market filled with opportunities.  But Warren hasn't kept still - he's moved with the times and adapted both his marketing and his writing to today's realities.

    Talking unabashedly about his love affair with westerns, prominently mentioning "The Searchers" and "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" Warren discussed how all films owe allegiance to those epics of yesteryear.  Although he's too young to have worked with some of the greats of that era like director John Ford and actors Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne and Lee Marvin, Warren parsed and deconstructed the times and the storylines of classics that shaped film and still resonate even 60+ years later.  

    "Black Rain," Warren's first notable film, sparkles with those classic sensibilities and continues to entertain and amaze - even to a recent showing in L.A. in a "real" theater with 70mm film stock.  Not digital - film, with all its flaws and imperfections and gorgeous cinematographic scope.

    Far from waxing nostalgic, Warren had the audience on the floor in laughter with unique takes on today's industry which he both loves and embraces, and is highly-amused by.  He mentioned "twittering" at one point and didn't mean Twitter.  He also talked about his current role as producer and how he is always looking for the one script that moves him as much as the films on which he cut his writing teeth. 

    The room was upbeat and energetic due in no small part to Warren's incredible sense of humor, sense of the absurd, and at varying times, his true, unabashed love of the industry he's worked in for over 25 years.   His anecdote about his father and his first VCR clearly showed the power and ability of this superb storyteller.  He was, in all ways, a perfect speaker for the people hungry to hear the how, whys and whens of this business of film because he had a foot in the past but spanned the present and had an eye to the future.

    The audience ranged from octogenarians to teens in high school and from amateur to professionals.  The smiles on everyone's face told the story the way a good film does - with non-verbal cues.   No one was ever un-amused or uniformed by Warren's presentation.

    We hope to continue to bring these types of events to our membership but to a great degree it's up to the membership to support and spread the word.  We hope to do 6-7 per year starting in 2014 but we also are planning one more for 2013 - in October/November.

    Many thanks to the OC Screenwriters membership and it's board of directors:  Lorenzo Porricelli, Victor Phan, Toby Wallwork, Robert Rollins and Joe Becker for helping make this a great event.

    And a huge thank you to all who took time out of their busy schedule to attend, network, and hear a fun and informative speaker.

    Blood Will Tell: For Immediate Release

    Robert Rollins Pictures is pleased to announce in the Fall of 2014 director Robert Rollins will begin shooting his second feature film Blood Will Tell.

    robert rollins pictures logoBlood Will Tell is a horror-tragedy.  The hero, TracyMarch, is a neuroscientist searching for the cure for a rare blood disease that has killed one of his children and stricken the other.  Cras Spem Ltd, Tracy’s employer, insists that he stop the blood project and switch back a marketable dementia drug.  In a last ditch effort to save his son Tracy starts injecting himself with the drug.  Once he has shown it is safe for humans he can do trial injections on his son. 

    However, the drug in not safe.   Tracy pays little attention to the initial changes – increased strength, a sharpened sense of smell and preternatural hearing.  To his growing horror he realizes that he has developed a taste, and then, a need for blood.  Tracy’s compulsion drives him to desperate measures.  Animal blood gives him little relief, so he is forced to hunt humans. 

    All of Tracy’s efforts to conceal his condition go horribly awry when a biohazard traps employees inside the Cras Spem Ltd building.  During the lockdown Tracy’s hunger starts to escalate.  When he learns the truth behind his drug’s failure, he loses all control.  What follows is a literal blood bath.  The wicked are butchered, but Tracy is too far gone to stop his killing.   Standing in Tracy’s path is Lani Bergman, his co-worker and lover.  Who will survive the final confrontation?

    Blood Will Tell is about a blood drinker, but is far from a traditional vampire tale.  There are no sparkles, no capes, no bats, no enlarged canines and no delicate neck nips.  In spirit, Blood Will Tell is closer to “Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” than to “Dracula.”  Tracy is not a demon or supernatural creature, but a man, terribly altered by science.  His tragedy is that, in trying to do good, he has unleashed Hell.

    Robert Rollins will direct Blood Will Tell from the original screenplay by Edward Fik and Robert Rollins; Craig Russom and Robert Rollins will produce; and Phil Martin is the movie’s director of photography.  Tracy March will be played Grant Landry who was featured in "The Lair," "Real Heroes," "Better Half” and in Robert Rollins’ first feature film "Dream Country.”

    jim kellyWhen the Universe decided to create a nearly perfect physical specimen, It put together athlete/actor Jim Kelly.  Born in 1946 in Paris, KY, Kelly's high school and college life was filled with organized athletics including basketball, football and various track and field sports.  After his freshman year at University of Louisville, however, Kelly quit collegiate sports and pursued martial arts, specifically Shōrin-ryū Karate.

    Kelly continued his karate studies all his life starting a dojo in the 70's in Long Beach, CA which at the time was a hotbed of martial arts activity.  The fabled Long Beach Internationals, which celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2014, started there and reached a peak in the late 60's and mid-70's with notables like Bruce Lee in attendance.  Many martial artists worked in and around the area during the time that Kelly was redefining the sport by becoming one of the first African-American, world-recognized practitioners.  

    Kelly came into martial arts at a time when the U.S. was in turmoil.  Black Power was in the hearts and on the minds of many young African-Americans and some of what manifested from that was using martial arts in a very martial way.  Organizations like the Black Panthers (originally called the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense) used martial arts for physical training.  In reflecting that mindset, a scene in the film that started Kelly's career, "Enter The Dragon," shows his dojo adorned with black power symbology; and as Kelly's character later walks home from his dojo, he is hassled by the 'Heat,' two (white) patrol cops who racially profile him and want him to cower.  Kelly never cowered in film or life.  It was all on his terms and in doing so, he created a legacy that stands today and will continue long after his death.

    Films after "Enter the Dragon" came fast and furious for Kelly.  Called "Blaxploitation" (or Blacksplotation) by the mainstream media, these B-movies showed African-American leads like Richard Roundtree, Pam Grier and Jim Kelly kicking ass and taking names like their white counterparts Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson.  Kelly's films  like "Black Belt Jones" (1974) and "Three the Hard Way" (1974) (with Jim Brown and Fred Williamson) gave an entire generation of young African-Americans role models that looked and sounded like them but also combined an interest in the flying fists of the Far East.  In the same way that early rap reflected the culture of the streets at the time, these movies showed a world we barely knew - "The Ghetto" and all its pain and anger.  It was a dangerous place at times where desperation reigned, and violence came at you in several directions at once.  It made sense to make yourself stronger by learning how to fight and Kelly led the pack in his films.  Kelly looked like he could walk down any street and never be hassled.   Interest grew on a national level for what gave him this type of confidence - namely, the martial arts.  But the Ghetto was also a place of family, high moral values, and generational inspiration and Kelly strongly reflected that too.

    There were action films and martial arts films before Kelly but none of them had leads who were as accomplished as Kelly and were African-American.  Kelly looked so good because he was the real deal winning several tournaments and training in many sports.  No actor at that time possessed his balletic power.  When he spun into a backkick, it was a kick you could believe in.  It wasn't the silly 'karate chops' of the James Bond films or the endless punches of any actioneer but rather a true martial warrior's execution.  He kicked, punched and moved like no other black man of that time.  And no one combined Kelly's  stature (he was 6'2",) his remarkable swagger - or that insane 'fro of his.  His language was the lingua franca of his culture - the vernacular of the 70's street dude who had spent his youth running into and from trouble but had then had found an outlet for his furious energy in karate.

    jim kelley, enter the dragonThe anger and pain Kelly experienced in his early life found control and mastery in the dojo.  There, under the guidance of many masters, he began to understand the importance of being able to mitigate his emotions, to channel those emotions in a positive way.  And by showing others by example his way, by being an African-American with mad karate skills, he inspired generations to become martial artists and to emulate the man who exuded quiet confidence but would kick your butt if you acted wrong.  Kelly was just so superfly; all quiet cool and frosty with a white-hot core of physical skills.

    Kaiso Shawn Cephas, Soke of American Shorinji-te and CEO of Warrior-Priest Productions said of Kelly: "My father, Willard Cephas, is my martial arts role model and hero, but actors like Jim Kelly were our (the young black community) superheroes.  They did things we only dreamed of, drove cars (like souped-up Ferraris) we'd never seen before.  The idea of an African-American being the star of a movie - and being an accomplished martial artist - made us believe we could also do just about anything with our lives."

    kelly, saxonKelly continued his multi-genre, race-breaking barrier ways by becoming ranked as number 2 in senior men's doubles rankings and reaching the state's top ten in senior men's singles in tennis!  This was in 1975 at the height of his prowess and it showed just how incredible a physical specimen he was but also, at a time when the 'face' of professional tennis was mostly white men, he shattered that color barrier.

    You cannot under-estimate Kelly's contributions.  Like a lot of innovators he was the perfect man at a perfect time.  There were more famous, more accomplished actors but there was no one who combined Kelly's unique skill set.  He was young, beautiful, and badass but practiced a quiet calm and inner confidence that completely destroyed the stereotypes.  At a time when many of filmdom's villains were gangsta African-Americans here was a man who was the antitheses - he was/is a superb, positive role model and hero for generations of young men and women.

    As he told Mr. Han in "Enter The Dragon" - "Man, you come right out of a comic book"  - Kelly indeed did.  But in all the positive, affirming ways that make those imaginary heroes so inspirational to us.

    My article on "Enter The Dragon," which was the first of this martial arts film series I did, is HERE - the review talks about Kelly and his contributions to that film.  

    But if you want to remember Jim Kelly, head to Netflix or Amazon and watch some of his movies.  And be inspired all over again.

    Jim Kelly Filmography:

    Melinda (1972)
    Enter the Dragon (1973) as Williams
    Black Belt Jones (1974) as Black Belt Jones
    Three the Hard Way (1974) as Mister Keyes
    Golden Needles (1974)
    Take a Hard Ride (1975) as Kashtok
    Hot Potato (1976) as Jones
    Black Samurai (1977) as Robert Sand
    The Tattoo Connection (a.k.a. E yu tou hei sha xing, Black Belt Jones 2) (1978)
    Death Dimension (1978)
    The Amazing Mr. No Legs (1981)
    One Down, Two To Go (1982)
    Stranglehold (1994)
    Macked, Hammered, Slaughtered and Shafted (2004)
    Afro Ninja Destiny (2009)
    Afro Ninja (2009)


    fearless"Fearless," the story of China's martial arts master Huo Yuanjia, is actually called "Jet Li's Fearless" - and so it is.  Without the multi-talented Li the film would be much, much less than it is.  This was also supposedly Li's swan song - his last wushu film but I would never take that seriously given how many actors have an almost genetic need to be on stage and Li's martial arts skills are masterful still.  And in fact, he's done several more films that involve him as a martial artist since that pronouncement in 2006.  Part of what was going through his mind at the time might be gathered from this essay on his website: HERE

    Li, (real name: Li Lianjie) who was a martial arts prodigy and became a national champion in China, has always been a gold standard of martial arts acting and abilities.  He's the real thing.  He moves with lethal grace and seems as comfortable in his skin as any man or woman alive.  His fights always seem real (until they put a wire on him and fly him across rooftops) - a result of his training with the Beijing Wushu Team which trains and does demonstrations at demonic speed and ferocity.

    Li had his American film debut in "Lethal Weapon 4" in 1998 but he was already a star in Asia from his first film in 1982.  From the age of eight, he trained in wushu, a Chinese style of martial arts with roots in kung fu.  As part of the insanely good Bejiing Wushu Team (as was martial arts superstar Donnie Yen,) Li won dozens of medals and awards as a young man and migrated to film stardom in film series such as "Shaolin Temple"  and "Once Upon a Time In China" which details the life of Master Wong Fei Hung.   

    Li is a deeply spiritual man which leads no doubt to his uncanny ability to seemingly be above everything happening in a film role and yet be entirely engaged.

    As in the role of Huo Yuanjia, the wushu master in this film.

    "Fearless" is a (very loose) examination of the life of Huo Yuanjia, a martial artist who fought foreigners in staged bouts for the national pride of China at a time when the British and Americans were changing the country's cultural identity and had proclaimed on more than one occasion that China wasn't significant as culture or people.  This was just after the Boxer Rebellion (1901) and before the establishment of the Republic of China in 1912.  Although the film doesn't necessarily point to either of these events specifically, it does play up the malaise affecting China during this time and implies that Yuanjia's bouts restored the pride of the nation to a point where China was able to establish itself as a republic.  It does seem obvious enough that the filmmakers felt that Yuanjia had a lot to do with becoming a polarizing force for the nationalism that led to China finally throwing off the growing foreign imperialism at the time.

    fearlessThe film opens non-linearly at an epic bout late in Yuanjia's life.  Yuanjia must fight with fists, sword, and spear/pike and defeat all of his opponents to be declared winner.  One against four doesn't seem fair but this is the deal. Now Yuanjia has to face his last opponent, a Japanese karate master named Tanaka (actor Nakamura Shidō II.)  

    At the start of this bout, the film then flashes back to when Yuanjia was a child.

    As a young boy, Yuanjia worships his father's martial arts skills.  Banners proclaiming the elder master's successes adorn the walls of Yuanjia's ancestral home.  Yuanjia is so smitten with the idea of becoming the world's greatest fighter that he convinces a childhood friend, actor Dong Yong, to do his homework for him so he can practice wushu.

     Yuanjia also picks fights (and loses) with other young boys as he proclaims his father's wushu is best. 

    Several years later Yuanjia's father is dead and he is head of the household.  His wife has died from illness but his mother and young daughter fill his life with joy.  He is carefree, treating the family business with seeming disdain and fighting all challengers in the town square - then drinking and partying afterward in his childhood friend's restaurant.  His goal is to never lose a fight and he is indeed undefeated except for one lone fighter (Qin Lei) who he has never challenged.  As his reputation grows, Yuanjia becomes increasingly arrogant and angry until he refuses to allow any disagreement with his wants and needs despite that his business is failing and he has no balance in his life.  He continues to seek the title of Master of Tianjin, the village from which he comes but the only opponent of note he hasn't fought is the man who was spared by Yuanjia's father years before, Qin Lei.  Yuanjia still harbors a resentment and anger toward Qin Lei and finds a reason to challenge him when Lei supposedly harms one of Yuanjia's students.

    The fight he picks with Qin Lei is epic and amazingly choreographed - as were all the fight scenes in this film including one on a platform thirty feet in the air.  Li's skills are still sharp and extensive.  He leaps, spins, kicks and punches like a man twenty-five years his junior.  In his forties when this film was made, he seems ageless - another reason why I can't see him retiring from this type of film anytime soon despite his claims to be done with wushu/martial arts films.

    Yaunjia batters and kills his opponent and in retribution, his family is then murdered by Quin Lei's godson.  This sends Yuanjia on a multi-year journey of anguished doubt and personal crises.  He ends up nearly dead in a mountain village, falls in love with a young blind girl named Moon (actress Betty Sun) - sort of - and returns to his ancestral home to begin his penance for killing Qin Lei.

    But the city of Tianjin, like all of China, has changed. It is now filled with foreigners who march through the streets and determine the rights of the citizens.  The Chinese men and women have been beaten down, told they are less than human, and controlled by the American, British and Japanese forces who covet their vast resources.  Li's character is determined to change all that through a series of fights with these foreigners and also by establishing the Chin Woo Athletic Association (originally, The Jing Wu Athletic Society) in Shanghai which will train Chinese fighters in the wushu way, promoting Chinese nationalism.

    In the last epic battle, the one that opens the film, Li must face his last opponent, the Karate master Tanaka who is shown as having both skills and honor.  The Japanese fighter's manager, however, isn't so honorable and poisons Yuinjia during the bout to guarantee a win.  Dying, throwing up blood, Li's character insists on finishing and although he apparently loses the bout because he is too weakened to continue, the Japanese fighter declares him the winner.  "I know it in my heart," he says.

    Yuanjia's death (basically) propels China into the events that become the establishment of the Republic of China and although dead, his spirit goes back to the mountain village to be with the woman who renewed his soul and with whom he fell in love.  

    Fade out on happy, smiling (ghostly) Yuanjia and Moon.

    So, a dramatic story, insanely good martial arts, compelling historical events, and characters who grow and change - all hallmarks of a good film.  And indeed, "Fearless" is considered to be a strong contender for one of the top ten martial arts films ever made.

    The problem is, not a lot of it is true.  Which was not really a problem for me, but was apparently for the family of Yuanjia who sued the filmmakers after the film was released.

    fearlessA lot of Yuanjia's history detailed in this film is just false.  He wasn't middle class, his family was never murdered (just ask his direct descendants) sending him on a sojourn of personal crises, and some of the sequence's of how the Sports Club were established were just a product of the writers' (two of them) imagination.  There was no soul-searching sojourn and no beautiful, blind woman who restored his spirits.  Yuanjia's death was somewhat mysterious but it didn't happen at a bout like the one in the film and there was only rumor that the Japanese had anything to do with it.  Yuanjia suffered from childhood illnesses (in the movie it's severe asthma) - it's likely that that had something to do with his death, and not some surreptitiously substituted poisoned tea.  Also, some of the fights with Western opponents just never happened for one reason or another, and there is no way that Yuanjia fought four opponents at one time for all the marbles.

    Of course, not knowing the history behind this seminal character, I bought into all of it without reservation.  But I guess it would be like someone writing a history of an inspirational American athlete like Jesse Owen and making him white and from the Hamptons.  If accuracy is a determiner then this films fails.  If spirit is the goal then this film is certainly successful and inspirational and tells a tale of the times when China rose from a country-wide malaise to become a superpower when superpowers were measured not by nukes but by people and national pride. 

    "Fearless" is a solid and entertaining film.  If you compare it to most martial arts films, it shines above most.  A few like "Ip Man" made years after and considered to be in that small club of important martial arts films, also stand out as being about something more than fighting and surely were inspired by this movie.  Through martial arts, these men (and women) find pursuits and goals beyond themselves, putting aside their egos and fighting for a reason beyond that ego.  That's a great story to tell and one that is uniquely Asian (although the idea of inspirational athletes certainly is not.)

    Jet Li is a marvel to watch in this and other of his films and is and has been a major star for decades.  My only hope is that he continues to display his enormous skills on screen and doesn't seriously retire.  He has been seen in several Chinese action films and, if course, "The Expendable" series but perhaps nothing in the depth (martial arts-wise) of "Fearless" since he made it.. 

    Li's vast filmography is available everywhere including this film on Netflix streaming.  

    For an extra, special treat check out the promotional video of the Beijing Wushu Team on Wikipedia - you can see where all that skill and mastery that Li displays in all of his films came from.  HERE


    Yeoh and Rothrock - Girls with guns!  Oh, yes, Madam!

    "Yes, Madam" AKA "Police Assassins" is a ground-breaking 1985 Hong Kong film staring two stalwarts of martial arts filmmaking.  Michelle Yeoh and Cynthia Rothrock who were in their 20's at the time, portray police detectives from different worlds: Yeoh from Hong Kong and Rothrock from Scotland Yard.  

    In a buddy-cop teaming that smacks of brilliance, the dark-haired beauty (who was a former Miss World Malaysia) and the perky, blond American (a karate forms champion at the time) team up to bring down a bad guy, Mr. Tin (James Tien) who is seeking a microfilm document that will prove he is guilty of murder and conspiracy.

    Okay, another not-so-complicated story but one which reaps bounties of fun.

    The film was produced by legendary filmmaker Sammo Hung (what isn't in Southeast Asia?)  and it's fast, furious and, as mentioned, fun, which is a hallmark of a lot of Hong Kong films made by Hung and his producing partners.  As is his habit, Hung also has a small part playing the "old man" (sifu) to three losers who are trying to get enough money to get him to a proper home by various illicit means which becomes dangerous as Mr. Tin and their efforts become intertwined.

    "Yes, Madam" refers to Michelle Yeoh's title as police captain (like the Brits who call their female DCI's 'Mum' - as in The Queen Mum.)  In the opening scene, she single-handedly stops an armored car robbery by kicking, punching and shooting all the bad guys.  In a few cuts you can see it's not Yeoh doing all the stunt work but she always did in subsequent films using her ballet training and physical prowess to great effect.  This was her first major role as a lead actress and it rocketed her to the stratosphere of film where she still thrives today as a legit actress and martial arts actress.  She's had major roles in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" "Tomorrow Never Dies" "Memoirs of a Geisha" and as the voice of Soothsayer in "Kung Fu Panda II."

    "Yes, Madam" was also Rothrock's big break.  This, her third film but first major role, showed her martial arts prowess - and her natural beauty (and kickin' bod) did the rest to make her a go-to action girl when someone needed the real deal.   After "Yes, Madam" Rothrock did several more Hong Kong actioners before becoming the American equivalent of Bruce Willis or Sly Stallone.  It's led to a film career of 50+ features plus hundreds of public appearances all over the world.  

    I found out first hand what a rabid fan base Rothrock has.  One of the films I wrote, "Fast Getaway II" features Rothrock in a bad girl role that continues from the first Fast Getaway film.  The film company wanted to feature other actors so I wrote her part to reflect that.  The film is fun and actioney but Rothrock's fans took me to task for leaving her in a hotel room for a great portion of the film; although she did have a martial arts fight with her lover in the room in their underwear - that should count for something, right?  See the clip HERE.

    Yeoh and Rothrock are inspired casting.  Before "Lethal Weapon" these two characters were the Riggs and Murtaugh of Asia.  One blond, one dark haired; one Asian, one Caucasian; both with differing approaches to police work.  Rothrock's character prefers beating confessions out of suspects while Yeoh "Madam" is a kindler, gentler police woman.  According to Wikipedia, the producers were looking for an actor to play opposite Yeoh but wanted a male martial artist.  They contacted a demonstration team that included Rothrock and were so impressed by her stunning forms (and form!)  they hired her, changed the role, and the rest is Hong Kong film history.

    Their styles, martial arts-wise, were also different with Rothrock's power and precision being her hallmark and Yeoh's lithe grace showing her dancing and acrobatics skills.  Although neither at the time was necessarily a martial arts expert, both had mad skills that made their physical acting wholly believable.  Both have continued their training since this movie and I wouldn't want to face either in a ring.

    Hong Kong films like this, with female leads in action roles, are truly ground-breaking.  Western filmmakers didn't dip into this well of physical talent often enough in the 70's and 80's.  You had your Ripleys ("Alien") and your Princess Leias ("Star Wars") and the occasional "B" movie that featured the revenge-oriented girl or perhaps a black widow, but it was rare indeed to see women this gorgeous and this talented in martial skills on any screen in any venue.

    The flexibility in Hong Kong filmmaking is something to be admired and still lacking in our Western world.  To cast two waifish, beautiful women in traditionally male roles would have been unthinkable; and, for the most part, still is.  Name a female action star of Yeoh or Rothrock's stature - you really can't without starting with these two who have been reflecting those roles since the early 80's.

    This film shows a lot of what made Hong Kong moviemaking such a force.  Even though there are a lot of jokey fight scenes, they are brilliantly choreographed.   sammo hung jackie chanOne in particular in a tiny apartment shows the ingenuity of the filmmakers utilizing simply everything they could to create some awesome moments.  I'm always so impressed with these men and women who not only create these scenes but who have to act in them.  They are backbreaking at times and I can well imagine that a good medic on set is a necessity as the stunt men and women hurl themselves into space to land on objects that have no yield.  If you've ever watched a Jackie Chan film and stayed through the end credits, you can see outtakes of poor Jackie missing things, falling wrong, and even occasionally breaking a bone as he, like the industry he helped grow, lands on unbendable objects to entertain us.

    Although "Yes, Madam" launched seven other "In The Line Of Duty" films (two more with Yeoh) I'd love to see Rothrock and Yeoh revisits these roles today.  Everything else is being rebooted - this would be a great one to re-imagine. with these two reprising their roles years later.  Perhaps this time on American soil.  But please have Sammo Hung involved since he seems to be the glue that holds a lot of these funny actioners together.

    Women in martial arts films has opened the door to women in MMA these days.  Lisa King (the Black Widow) fights real bouts with other tough women.  There is no doubt that without the influence of these films, female fighters wouldn't exist.  Attitudes were changed, options explored because women like Yeoh and Rothrock showed that they were capable of holding their own, at least on the screen, with the bad boys of martial arts.  Like scifi films that inspired young men and women to become scientists and then go on to make real the wonders they had read about and saw, imagining female fighters on screen has led to them becoming real in the ring.

    I had to special order "Yes, Madam" from a vendor on Ebay - it's not widely available.  But with over a hundred films between them, Yeoh and Rothrock are everywhere to be found.  In fact, Amazon has tons of free offerings for all Hong Kong films if you have Amazon Prime.  But even if not, $1.99-$2.99 is cheap to experience these wonderful examples of a genre of film that we, as Americans, still don't do well - the exception, perhaps, being "Rush Hour (the first one.) 

    Here is a link to the ending fight scene in "Yes, Madam" which just leaves you breathless!   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tz-4WIFhA6U - it was almost thirty years ago and still nothing like it has been seen on American cinema screens.  

    Simply amazing.


    stacey evans morganStacey Evans Morgan is a fifteen-year, seasoned veteran of television writing and producing.  With her brother, Bentley Kyle Evans, she's carved a niche out as a go-to writer and producer.  She's also independently developing new shows at hers and her brother's production company.   She also puts on (with her brother) a series of two day seminars to impart some of that hard-earned wisdom for people interested in breaking into television.

    And she still looks and enthusiastically acts like she's in college.

    On Saturday, June 15th, Stacey came to the SCWA (www.ocwriters.com) meeting to talk to a group of hungry-to-learn writers of all stripes.  To say she was a smashing success would be an understatement.  She entralled us.

    Stacey actually began writing out of college.  Like a lot of us who found ourselves wanting to be writers, rather than choosing a path seemingly set for her, Stacey chose her own.  She interned for a few shows and then started writing spec.  Her credits are extensive and include stints with "The Parkers" "House of Payne" and "Meet The Browns."  She's also contributed quite a bit of writing work to her current show "Love That Girl" on which she is a co-exec producer and which has been nominated for several NAACP Image Awards.  A new show "Family Time" is in the works.

    Stacey is knowledgeable and cautionary without being cynical.  Too many people in this business who've achieved her level of success have a hard scab over their egos - not Stacey.  She's open, honest to a fault, and still exudes the joy of what attracted her to this business in the first place.  She was a ball of energy that transitioned from one subject to another seamlessly, always in control of mer message.

    Her talk was filled with funny anecdotes that carried interesting and solid lessons in how to make it in the fast-paced world of TV production.  She mentioned recently finishing a stint of filming 13 eps in 14 days - unheard of!  And her well-conceived Powerpoint presentation echoed her verbal points about the breakneck pace of TV production and what is necessary to make it in the biz

    I could almost picture Stacey with a young writer in a church on the southside of Chicago.  They're sitting forward in a pew.  Stacey, holding the key to her production offices, asks the young writer in a Scottish brogue:  "And what are you willing to do?"  I doubt she'd mention putting one of theirs in the morgue if they put one of yours in the hospital but I wouldn't put anything past this joyful but tough-as-nails woman.

    Stacey mentioned her two-day seminar called "The Writers Room" where she plops down said Powerpoint presentation and probably, as she did with us, promptly forgets it's there.  She doesn't need it, really.  What's in her head that's become infused with her DNA is a wealth of knowledge on what's necessary to succeed in Hollywood TV production and she can spitball for instantly off of one small point.

    She spoke of how to get into a position to make good on your desire to become a writer on a show, specifically sitcoms which is her forte.  Most of it is what you'd expect: work hard, write a lot, show up on time, intern to get to know people - but there were a few points that really made us think of the level of commitment necessary..

    Stacey fairly bubbles with passion for her work.  She never mentioned it specifically but that's what I think makes her so successful.  She had just come off a grueling shooting schedule, was on the set in Northridge until midnight the previous night, and she fairly vibrated the walls with her excitement about talking to this group of writers.  I can well imagine that she went back home, worked 12 hours and went to bed with a smile on her lips anticipating the next day.  She made us understand (intuitively if not specifically) that if you don't love this business you will never make it.  It's too hard.  Too much is demanded to maintain your place in it for you to be lukewarm about it. 

    And you can never take anything for granted.

    Her main show, "Love That Girl" starring Tatyana Ali ("Fresh Prince of Bel Air") had been on an eighteen month hiatus.  Even though it was award-winning and highly successful commercially, the future was uncertain.  During the hiatus, they lost their star to another show (that was then canceled) but Stacey and her bro never lost the belief that it would be renewed - and it was.  That's part of what they just finished shooting - another 33 eps all in which brings the total to just under the 100 needed for syndication.  Now that's amazing considering they started in an empty warehouse they had to build out themselves into a sound stage.

    But Stacey and Bentley also didn't wait for the show to come back - they were proactive in their production lives, shooting for different goals while they waited for TV One (the show's production company) to make a decision.  TVOne (TV1) is available on various cable and satellite outlets.  On DirecTV I know it's channel 328 - you'll have to find it on your own particular entertainment provider.

    Lorenzo Porricelli and SCWA (www.ocwriters.com) are to be commended for their great "get" of this dynamo.  I honestly feel that if the room didn't have to be emptied by 1:30, Stacey would have stayed and talked for another three hours and I doubt anyone there would have left.

    I've been in this business for 20+ years and I found Stacey fascinating and supremely wise in the byways of TV.  In fact, I liked her and what she had to say so much I'm going to her next seminar.

    "Love That Girl" is available to watch on TV1 - and streaming somewhere I'm sure although I couldn't find it on Netflix, Amazon or Hulu - yet!  I'm sure Stacey and her brother are working on that as I type so look for it soon.

    If you get a chance to hear this dynamic speaker, take it.  There's a link below to a YouTube video for her Writers Room.  You can also find information on their FaceBook page: HERE.

    Thanks, Stacey - you were fabulous.

    Writers Room video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C0EaXdp1NTU


    bloodfistIt's easy to dismiss the 1989 "Bloodfist" as being only a re-packaged version of Jean Claude Van Damme's wildly successful "Bloodsport."  Critics weren't overwhelming in their praise of the film.  No one really thought much of it at the time.

    In similar fashion, its star, "The Flash That Will Not Last" was a tag given to kickboxing phenom Don "The Dragon" Wilson when he first started his professional fighting career.

    "Bloodfist" spurned an astounding eight (EIGHT!) sequels and Don Wilson is still going strong, even rumored at the age of 58 to be considering resurrecting his professional kickboxing career.

    So much for experts and expectations.

    "Bloodfist" is similar to "Bloodsport" in that it features a winner-take-all battle, called The Red Fist Tournament , that the lead character has to win.  Van Damme's movie is for the honor of his adopted father and Wilson's is about the murder of his brother which he seeks to revenge.

    Wilson's character heads to Manilla to find answers as to how his half-brother died after winning a fight that the brother was supposed to lose by arrangement (unknown to everyone, the fix was in.)  The trail leads him to a school where the fighters compete to win a cash prize.  Wilson, after picking up a trainer (the fantastic Joe Mari Avellana) - who was also his brother's trainer (hint, hint) begins to work long hours to get into shape to fight such foes as Billy Blanks (Black Rose,) Rob Kaman (Raton,) and the ferocious Cris Aquilar (Chin Woo) - all real life martial artists and competition champs.

    He meets a hot babe (Riley Bowman,) sorta-kinda falls in love (or at least lust,) fights various matches, discovers his brother's killer and wins the competition against last year's winner Chin Woo..  Familiar sure, but we're never going to be that impressed with the stories in these films - they are what they are - vehicles to get to what's important -  the martial arts and the central character.  

    The fight sequences and Wilson, a real, true champion kickboxer with a real world record of 72-5-2 (48 knockouts) with 3 no-contests delivers on both.

    Don isn't perhaps as flashy as some in this first film of the series; it was 1989 after all.  But there is little doubt when he fights that you are watching a master with consummate control of his body and skills.  If you watch his real fights on YouTube and compare them with the movie fights you see a lot of what made him a champion in those arenas where he had to defend against flailing fists and feet determined to knock him out.

    One of the odder moments in this movie that made me chuckle was when Wilson went to claim his brother's body.  You tend to process things like that with your worldview, thinking that "claim the body" means exactly that.  But instead of an actual body, Wilson's character was led to a file cabinet where his brother's ashes were kept.  An urn tag instead of a toe tag identifies him   I wondered if that was unique to the Philippines or just a production decision - but it was a bit weird in any case.

    All the characters in the film fall into comfortable categories - except for the guru/trainer character played by Avellana who is really good in the role in his matter-of-fact manner.  He trains boxers but he's also an artist which is unique.  Perhaps it's a reflection of that Samurai thing where they were warriors but also used to do art and calligraphy to be a well-rounded individual.

    The one really interesting aspect of Wilson's character is woefully under-utilized.  I'd never seen this before and was already anticipating some cool drama but it was not to be.  Wilson has a scar.  His students ask him what it's from.  He tells them he gave a kidney to his half-brother (the one who is killed) and because of it had to retire from competition since you can't fight with only one kidney.  I have no idea if this is true or not but I really thought it was a great way to ratchet up the stakes.  Sad to say, the storyline never touched on it again.  

    Wilson's acting is surprisingly good for someone who was just starting out.  I think it's part of who he is as a person - straight ahead, no false pretense - that makes him that good in this, one of his first films.  I worked with Don on "Terminal Rush" in 1996.  He was just simply a nice guy, smart and totally real. I never felt like I had to do any of the 


    bloodfist

    Hollywood dance with him.  I wish our movie had better production values and a bigger budget but the work I did with Don was first rate.

    Wilson's career since "Bloodfist" has always been on an upward arc.  His work ethic, lack of pretense and expert martial arts skill set is no doubt why. 

    Hall of Fame producer Roger Corman, best know for his low-budget horror/sci fi movies, is one of the geniuses behind the "Bloodfist" series.  There are box sets of all the "Bloodfist" movies (see list below) available.  

    Well worth it to experience Don "The Dragon" Wilson's flying kicks and hammer fists.

    Bloodfist Movies

     

    Image of Bloodfist
    1.
    Bloodfist (1989)
    Don Wilson plays retired kickboxer Jake Raye, who travels to Manila, where his brother is favored to win a kickboxing competition... (85 mins.)
    Director: Terence H. Winkless
    Stars: Don 'The Dragon' WilsonJoe Mari Avellana, Rob KamanBilly Blanks
     
    Image of Bloodfist II
    2.
    Bloodfist II (1990)
    Kickboxing champion Jake Raye thought his fighting days were over, until a call from an old friend draws... (85 mins.)
    Director: Andy Blumenthal
     
    Image of Bloodfist III: Forced to Fight
    3.
    Bloodfist III: Forced to Fight (1992)
    Don Wilson returns to the screen as a man unjustly accused of a brutal crime. Within the prison he must fight for survival, freedom and justice. (88 mins.)
    Director: Oley Sassone
     
    Image of Bloodfist IV: Die Trying
    4.
    Bloodfist IV: Die Trying (1992 Video)
    When Danny unknowingly repossesses the car of a powerful arms merchant, it sets off a chain of violent retaliation... (86 mins.)
    Director: Paul Ziller
     
    Image of Bloodfist V: Human Target
    5.
    Bloodfist V: Human Target (1994 Video)
    Don "The Dragon" Wilson struggles to regain his memory, not knowing who to trust, or even which side he's fighting on. (83 mins.)
    Director: Jeff Yonis
     
    Image of Bloodfist VI: Ground Zero
    6.
    Bloodfist VI: Ground Zero (1995 Video)
    Terrorists take over a nuclear weapons launch site, but don't count on a humble military courier, who happens to be making a visit. (86 mins.)
    Director: Rick Jacobson
     
    Image of Bloodfist VII: Manhunt
    7.
    Bloodfist VII: Manhunt (1995 Video)
    Don "the Dragon" Wilson is a man pursued. Branded a cop-killer, he must fight simply to stay alive, and to clear his name... (95 mins.)
    Director: Jonathan Winfrey
     
    Image of Bloodfist VIII: Trained to Kill
    8.
    Bloodfist VIII: Trained to Kill (1996)
    A former CIA agent (Wilson) lives a suburban life as a high school teacher with his teen son (White)... (85 mins.)
    Director: Rick Jacobson
     
     
    Image of Bloodfist 2050
    9.
    Bloodfist 2050 (2005 TV Movie)
    Alex Danko descends into the ultra-violent underworld of extreme martial-arts to find his brother's...
    Director: Cirio H. Santiago
     
     

     


    sergio leone“[Spaghetti westerns] fuse the operatic and film melodrama, producing a highly affective style that ranges from the expression of rage at blatant and ubiquitous violence, disgust in the contemplation of monumental aspirations to power, and elegiac mourning in the face of death.” – Marcia Landy, “Which Way is America?”: Americanism and the Italian Western.

    The western has long symbolized American ideals of rebirth, freedom and justice in the American frontier.  Westerns capture the ideals of the American character and harken back an agrarian era that wasn’t complicated by the stresses of modern society.  These films have developed their own rules that can be used to classify films with similar trappings in the western genre.  In 1964, Italian director Sergio Leone introduced the world to the sub genre of westerns that would be known as spaghetti westerns with the release of A Fistful of Dollars (1964). 

    Though Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964) wasn’t the first spaghetti western, it was the most popular and successful at its time and introduced new trappings to the orthodoxy of the western genre.  Even though some critics lauded Leone’s revisions to the genre as contributing to “the death of the western,” American filmmakers like Sam Peckingpah, George Roy Hill, and Richard Brooks have since adopted Leone’s western style into their cinematic explorations of the American west. “Though largely associated internationally with Leone, Italian westerns were also made by such filmmakers as Sergio Corbucci, Sergio Sollima, and Damiani Valerii.”

    Leone was born in Naples in 1929 into a cinema family.  His father was a silent film director and his mother was an actress.  Leone began his film career in the 1940s as an assistant director and began directing his own films in the 1950s.  “Leone himself has cited the importance of such films as Yojimbo, Sanjuro, Shane, and Vera Cruz to his own work.”  The 1960s were a time of globalization and Leone decided to make his own brand of westerns to comment on what was going on in the contemporary world by revisiting the American past. 

    When audiences first watched A Fistful of Dollars (1964), they were introduced to a new kind of hero.  Heroes in the classic westerns portrayed by John Wayne, Gregory Peck, and Gary Cooper had resembled mystic knights.  Western heroes in classic westerns like the Ringo Kid in John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) were driven by a sense of justice the audience clearly understood.  The new western hero known as the man with no name, ruggedly portrayed by Clint Eastwood, resembled something entirely different.  This hero had ambiguous moral agendas and only seemed to be driven by the want of money.  In A Fistful of Dollars (1964), the nameless gunslinger plays both sides of the warring groups in town and pits them against each other.  As the film plays out, the audience learns that the man with no name does have a sense of justice and loyalty, but that loyalty is only devoted for those who he considers innocent or who befriend him. 

    clint eastwoodThe Man With No Name would continue his search for riches in the sequels For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (1966).  The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (1966) opens with a sequence claiming the nameless gunslinger as “the good,” but his motives are still questionable.  He pairs up with an outlaw named Tuco the “ugly” and searches for hidden gold.  On their journey, they cross paths with the ruthless Senteza “the bad.”  The film climaxes in a scene with a three way draw between the good, the bad, and the ugly.  Even after finding the gold and being in a perfect position to cross the ugly, as promised the nameless gunslinger only takes with his share of the treasure and rides off. 

    Just by watching the title sequence of A Fistful of Dollars (1964), the audience can immediately see they’re in for a different western spectacle than what they were accustomed to.  The film opens with a combination of animation and rotoscope sequence showing cowboys being shot down over an incredible score by Ennio Morricone. 

    The music from Morricone definitely added to the theatricality of Leone’s westerns.  “The scores for Leone’s films serve a number of functions: as affective commentary on character’s actions or state of mind as mockery, cliché, leitmotiv, thematic continuity, and hence, as a comment on reiteration, variation, or ironic reversal.”  There are specific scenes in A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966) that push the envelope in celebrating the mythical western hero through the man with no name.  In the third act in A Fistful of Dollars (1964), the nameless gunslinger appears before the final confrontation with the villains.  He steps out of the smoke of an explosion with his serape blowing in the wind to a fanfare score by Morricone, like something out of legend. 

    Another stylistic decision that is very evident in Leone’s westerns is the use of gratuitous violence.  Classic westerns showed scenes of gunfights with the cowboy shooting and the villains falling over dead without any bullet holes.  Leone changed the landscape by showing men being mowed down by gunfire and all of the gruesome aftermath.  There is a scene in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1966) where Tuco drags the nameless gunslinger through the hot desert.  The aftermath of the relentless sun is shown on the man with no name’s face, as skin peals from his dried face.  Critics at the time abhorred Leone’s use of violence, but the violence reflected the troubling world of the times and would influence other filmmakers to push the violence in their westerns.

    Classic westerns idolized the American west while spaghetti westerns portrayed it as lawless and gritty.   “Leone’s films rely on a certain dry and dusty desert landscape that comes to signify “the west” but provides an arena of open space for action.”  In A Fistful of Dollars (1964), the sheriff of town who happens to be the patriarch of the Baxter family has no power over the rival Rojo family or the man with no name.  The land is lawless and the only authority is the cold steel of a gun.  The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1966) shows lands and people torn apart by the civil war.  There is a scene at the end of Act 2 where the nameless gunslinger and the ugly meet soldiers at bridge before they head into battle.  The battle scene shows how merciful war is and how unromantic the devastation of it was. 

    Influences of the spaghetti western style can be seen in American filmmaker Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969).  The protagonists in the The Wild Bunch (1969) are aging outlaws out for one last score, their motives being much less than chivalrous.  Their saving grace is their loyalty and friendship to one another.  John Belton describes the characters in the post-Leone westerns in his book American Cinema American Culture:

    A handful of westerns, made in the 1960s and early 1970s and set in the period after the closing of the frontier, look back nostalgically to the old west and feature legendary characters who have outlived the heroic gold, silver, and bronze ages of the west and are regarded as either curiosities or unwanted embarrassments by an indifferent or openly hostile twentieth-century society.  The values of the world around these old West character types has become corrupted by the forces of corporate capitalism, such as railroads, banks, mining interests or trusts.  These institutions play an increasingly significant role in the rooting out of these defiant individuals who have fallen out of step with the advancing parade of modern times.  

    claudia cardinalleThe Wild Bunch (1969) opens with a very stylized scene of the main cast riding into town with frame frames naming the actors, setting a sense of theatricality akin to the Leone films.  The directing style during the gunfight sequences emphasizes the chaotic atmosphere and aggression of bullets ripping through the air.  The beginning bank robbery style scene explodes as bank robbers and lawmen fight while the townsfolk are caught in the middle.  The violence in this film is top notch showing the bloody remains of gunfire, shredding soldiers, cowboys, and innocent bystanders apart.  The world of The Wild Bunch (1969) not black and white like in classic westerns, instead it’s gritty and lawless, and the men with the guns are ones in control. 

    Leone passed at age 60 on April 30, 1989 in Rome, Italy.   Besides the Dollars Trilogy, Leone directed two other spaghetti westerns such as Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) and Duck, You Sucker (1971).  Leone’s initial pick for casting for the man with no name was Henry Fonda whom he really looked up to, but went with TV actor Clint East instead due to budget reasons.  Upon the success of the Dollars Trilogy, Leone was finally able to work with Fonda in Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). 

    Leone set his own stylizations in his spaghetti westerns and influences can be seen in the westerns that came afterwards as is evident in The Wild Bunch (1969). 

    Bibliography

    1.  Belton, John.  American Cinema American Culture.  New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2009. 

    2.  Landy, Marcia.  “Which Way is America?”: Americanism and the Italian Western. 

    Boundary 2 23:1 (1996): 35-59. 

    3.  McClain, William.  Western, Go Home!  Sergio Leone and the “Death of the Western” in

    American Film Criticsm.  Journal of Film and Video 62.1-2 (2010): 52-66. 

    bloodsport"Bloodsport" was released in 1988.  2013 marked the 25th anniversary of the movie that made the lead actor, Jean Claude Van Damme (The Muscles from Brussels,) a star.   It tells the 'true' story of martial artist Frank Dux who was the first westerner to win the 'Kumite' a bloody no-holds-barred fight that took place in 'Hong Kong.'

    Why am I putting everything in quotes?  Because there is no end of controversy to this film even 25 years later.

    - Was Frank Dux, the source material for this story, the real thing both as a martial artist and a military hero?

    - Was Van Damme a real martial artist or just a talented dancer and gymnast with some martial arts moves?

    - Did the Kumite, the fight with no rules and where death was possible, even exist?

    Honestly, does it really matter?

    At the age of 28 at the time, Van Damme was supremely handsome, built like a god, able to spin and kick with apparent power and elegance, and could do a full split, even able to support himself fully extended between two chairs.  If you've never seen Van Damme do this, you have got to YouTube it and check it out.  There's a small image later on in this article from the movie with him doing this.

    Van Damme had done 4 films before "Bloodsport" and has done 42 since, including a recent turn in "The Expendables II" staring a lot of aging action stars.  And he still looks convincing good kicking and fighting although his face does show wear from years of hard living.  

    Even with his heavy Belgium accent, Van Damme's electric smile and undeniable on-screen charisma could always convince you that he was a good enough actor his films.   And he was perhaps one of the most convincing martial arts kickers on the screen tossing out fan kicks and his flying, signature 360 degree spin kick with perfection.  Even Chuck Norris with his power and speed didn't seem as good as Van Damme in his prime in the 80's and early 90's.  The question that has always been asked: was Van Damme a real kicker?  

    Plenty of people have said that he couldn't really kick his way out of a paper bag.  I don't think I would have wanted to find out. Van Damme always looked precise, powerful and in perfect control.  A mark of a martial artist who truly understood his body and his skill set.  Plus, at an early age (16-yrs-old through 22-yrs-old) he competed in semi- and full-contact karate kickboxing matches and won them convincingly.  Before he retired from competition he had an 18-1 (18 knockouts) kickboxing record, and a semi-contact record of 41-4 and was part of a Belgium team that won a European Karate Championship.  Apparently, there was difficulty verifying some of this 20+ years ago but it has since been cleared up and Van Damme has been redeemed.

    bloodsport

    bloodsport
    The story in "Bloodsport'" is razor thin.  Van Damme's Frank Dux character is trained by a ninjitsu master, Tiger Tanaka (which is also the name of a Bond ally which in some ways puts Dux's veracity in question since this is also the name of his real mentor in his book "The Secret Man".)  He goes to the Kumite to honor his dying master whose son has recently died and now is facing the end of a 40-generation tradition of a Tanaka representing the clan at the Kumite.  Dux feels it's his duty to be Tanaka's surrogate son and re-pre-sent, 'yo.  
     
    In order to do this he has to defy military protocol which sends the military police after him, including a very early version of the bad guy that made Forrest Whittaker famous.  "The Last King of Scotland" role as Idi Amin, and the incredible role Whittaker plays in one of the seasons of "The Shield" as a crusading Internal Affairs officer has its roots in this film.  So Dux goes to Hong Kong against orders to fight for his masters' honor, the military police pursue, and Dux meets a hot babe (Leah Ayers) and a mountain of man (Donald Gibb) who becomes his friend.  Yada yada.
     
    Next stop, Kumite AKA Bloodsport.

    The Walled City, Kowloon, is used as a set piece in this film.  The Hong Kong government tore it down in 1993 but this movie is the only one I've seen where it's featured.  Too bad they did away with it - it looked fantastic.  Uh, well, if you appreciate post-apocalyptic-type settings.  I wish they had explored this fascinating piece of history more and had less of the silly military police story.

    bloodsport

    The amazing Bolo Yeung, Mr. Hong Kong, whose pectoral muscles could have sheltered a family of five, plays the ultimate villain.  His Chong li character was last years' Kumite champion which makes him badass, and he's dirty, of course.  Dirty enough to hit to kill - which he does with frequency, eventually targeting Van Damme who has broken his speed knockout record.  Thus setting up the inevitable fight at the end.

    Van Damme as Dux fights, wins, runs away from the military police, and, in the epic last battle as Leong's character tosses some sort of stinging dust in his eyes, fights blind.  Lucky for him, his master, Tanaka, trained him how to do this by having him serve tea.  I'm not kidding, although I am being a bit snarky - there are other training sequences with Dux in a blindfold.

    I did say the story is razor thin.

    This film generated more lawsuits and potential lawsuits of one sort or another than a band of gypsies on the grift.  Bottom line, the movie is entertaining.  It is based on maybe true/maybe-not-all-that-true events of a larger-than-life man starring a larger-than-life martial arts' actor.  "Bloodsport" was a seminal film in the history of martial arts films in that it made legends of some of the people involved with it and it really feels like it was the inspiration for the entire MMA industry (mixed martial arts) and by decades pre-dated the concept of cross-training in more than one discipline.  It is perhaps not a great film but it definitely is groundbreaking.  You can see "Bloodsport" reflected in many other martial arts films after its release.  Yes, like a lot of martial arts films of that era, it feels jokey and hokey at times but the fighting, stunts, and interesting set pieces (and controversies) elevate this movie to a different tier.  Because for everyone who says that Frank Dux and Jean Claude Van Damme are fakes, there are legions who say that they are the real deal and had/have a story to tell even to this day.  Whatever the truth is, there in no doubt that this film set the martial arts world on fire in more ways than one.

    van damme splits

    "Bloodsport" 'kickstarted' the career of Van Damme was successful enough to spin off at least two sequels.  Recently, Van Damme tried to reboot "Bloodsport" but the studios ultimately turned him down.  It is listed as being 'in development' so perhaps it is still to be.  Van Damme's career isn't suffering though.  He did six films in 2012, one in 2013 (so far) and has one listed in pre-prod for 2014.

    Sheldon Lettich, who co-wrote "Bloodsport" with Dux hasn't done anything that I can find since 2006 but this film also supercharged  his career and he wrote and directed several films, including a few more with Van Damme, after this.

    Despite personal issues including alcohol problems, and always having to defend his martial arts cred and his acting, Van Damme is still a supremely compelling figure.  Don't count him out at any point because like the characters in his films, he always get up off the mat after being knocked down and seemingly knocked out.

    And Frank Dux travels the world as a martial arts advocate, teacher, advisor and still larger-than-life character.  

    Trivia/Errata:

    • The real Frank Dux was the fight coordinator and creative consultant on this film.  According to "legend" Dux met Van Damme, prounounced him too soft for the role and put him under an arduous three month training regime.  Van Damme admitted that Dux put him through the ringer saying the he had never worked as hard to train for anything.
    •  
    • At the end, before the credits roll, this is displayed about Frank Dux: This motion picture is based upon true events in the life of Frank W. Dux. From 1975 to 1980 Frank W. Dux fought 329 matches. He retired undefeated as the World Heavy Weight Full Contact Kumite Champion. Mr. Dux still holds four world records: Fastest Knockout - 3.2 seconds Fastest Punch with a Knockout - .42 seconds Fastest Kick with a Knockout - 72 mph Most Consecutive Knockouts in a Single Tournament - 56 Subsequently Mr. Dux founded the first American Ninjitsu System. Dux-Ryu.
    •  
    • At the time the film was released, the L.A. Times posted this article about Frank Dux that basically started the controversy about his background: HERE
    •  
    • Here's some fun facts about the film from Frank Dux: HERE

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