Underrated Movie #112: Jackie Chan’s First Strike

Ending on a cliffhanger!
Title: Police Story 4 a.k.a. Jackie Chan’s First Strike
Year: 1997
Director: Stanley Tong
Writers: Stanley Tong, Nick Tramontane, Greg Mellott, Elliot Tong
Stars: Jackie Chan, Jackson Liu, Annie Wu, Bill Tung, Yuri Petrov

The Story: A Hong Kong supercop accidentally gets mixed-up in international espionage that takes him to Siberia, Moscow, and Australia while chasing after a stolen dirty bomb.

How it Came to be Underrated: After a few failed attempts to cross over to an American audience by starring in bad American movies, Chan ironically finally achieved American success by staying in Hong Kong and working his way up to bigger and bigger budgets. Finally, his movies looked so nice that American distributers were willing to dub them and release them over here. The two biggest hits, Rumble in the Bronx (due to its American setting), and Supercop (aka Police Story 3, due to breakout co-star Michelle Yeoh), led to him finally getting the Hollywood movie offers he wanted. Caught in between was this, his biggest-budget Hong Kong movie, which for some reason got less notice here, even though I think it’s his best.

Why It’s Great:

  1. After Bruce Lee died, hundreds of martial artists tried to mimic his superheroic stoicism onscreen. Chan’s genius was to do the opposite. His kung-fu was just as masterful (well, almost), but he winced in pain after every punch. His idol is clearly Buster Keaton, not just in his love of comedy (they both frequently fight guys two heads taller than they are) but in his insistence on doing his own stunts and his intensely likable persona that carries over from movie to movie. (Buster’s heroes were always named Buster, and Jackie’s, at least in the Americanized versions, are always named Jackie.)
  2. And indeed the heart of Chan’s appeal at that time was the amazing stunts, whether or not they involved kung fu. In that sense, this was one of the last real Jackie Chan movies, because the higher budgets of his subsequent American movies came with a terrible price: the insurance companies wouldn’t let him do his own stunts anymore, which squandered half of his value. But he went out with a bang, since this movie has a half-dozen beautifully choreographed fights, culminating in a spectacular melee in a shark tank.
  3. It feels silly to recommend a dubbed and edited-down movie, (a list of edits can be found here) but it’s not really that much of a problem—Since Chan was emulating silent movies, the soundtrack is sort of beside the point. The dubbing, for what it’s worth, is done rather well, with Chan doing his own voice and bringing a lot of personality.
  4. Lots of people have tried to simulate the Bond formula (even many Bond movies are poor Bond-imitations) with limited success, but Chan and his longtime director Tong manage to find just the right combination of action set-pieces and twisty espionage. It helped that this was the first Police Story movie without Maggie Cheung’s too-nice girlfriend character, so Chan was able to spend more time on the mission.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Given that this is nominally the fourth in a series, it’s only logical to watch the first three as well, which are all great, albeit very different. You can watch Jackie work his way up from a normal beat cop to become a, shall we say, supercop.

How Available Is It?: It has a bare-bones DVD with only the dubbed track. Supercop has gotten a much better DVD release, with both soundtracks and an excellent English-language commentary by a film historian that gives a lot of background on the whole series, so you should seek that out if you crave a special feature.

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: Your Hands and Feet Will Have Super Fantastic Power!


Underrated Movie #111: Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story

Cheesy Week mini-unit #2: Kung Fu Fighting!

Title: Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story
Year: 1993
Director: Rob Cohen
Writers: Edward Khmara and John Raffo and Rob Cohen, from books by Linda Lee Caldwell and Robert Clouse
Stars: Jason Scott Lee (no relation to Bruce), Lauren Holly, Nancy Kwan

The Story: Young Bruce Lee is sent to America to escape the reach of the demon that has cursed his family. He marries a wonderful woman, teaches his own brand of kung fu, and shows the world what he can do, but the demon finally catches up to him at the height of his career.
How it Came to be Underrated: No bio-pic ever served the fans of its subject better (they actually capture his appeal), and it did fine box office at home and abroad, but its unabashed cheesiness kept it from getting taken very seriously, and it was quickly forgotten in this country.
Why It’s Cheesy Fun:
  1. The central conceit of this movie is wonderfully ballsy: if you’re going to make a Bruce Lee bio-pic, why not make it into a real Bruce Lee movie, filled with several impromptu over-the-top fist fights? After all, Bruce’s life really was filled with fighting, although those fights may not have been as gamely entertaining as these.
  2. The casting of Jason Scott Lee was initially criticized because he was only half-Chinese (and half-Polynesian) and not a martial artist (he was trained as a dancer). But he couldn’t have been more perfect. He did get trained to fight (well enough for closely-edited action) but that’s only eight scenes. Far more importantly, he was able to move like Lee in every scene—elegantly fluid and joyously springy. He also captured something no one can teach: charm. It’s a crime that he didn’t go on to become a bigger star after this.
  3. Several elements have been cavalierly fictionalized to make them more dramatic. Whenever Cohen has to choose between showing how Lee’s life was or showing how it felt, he wisely show chooses the latter. The only way to turn a whole life into one seamless story is to re-arrange and combine many elements. That method gets highly criticized in more controversial bio-pics, but it serves this sort of movie just fine. Cohen modestly and carefully details all of the fictionalizations in his commentary.
  4. Bruce broke a lot of barriers, but nothing was more brazen about him then or now than his ridiculous amount of sex appeal, which was strictly forbidden for Asian men in America. This movie does a beautiful job capturing that. Remember way back when movies were still allowed to have sex scenes? Whatever happened to those?
  5. This was supposed to feel like an exploitation movie, but a real life tragedy intervened at the last minute which made it seem far more exploitative than they had ever intended. In the metaphorical demon scenes that run through the movie, they establish that Bruce has to defeat the family demon or else it will come after his son. This was supposed to be a triumphant note (he died to save his son!) but after this movie was finished, one month before it opened, the actual Brandon Lee died in a bizarre on-set tragedy that eerily echoed his father’s mysterious death. It was too late to do anything but send a ghoulish message about the inevitability of fate.
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: What else? The best Bruce Lee movies are Enter the Dragon and an earlier movie that was released here later as Return of the Dragon, but they’re all great, even Game of Death, where he was just in the last twenty minutes—but what a twenty minutes!
How Available Is It?: The DVD has an excellent in-depth commentary from Cohen, who seems like a real pro and a great guy, but the DVD is not anamorphic, so it could really use a new edition.
Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: Disarm Gun-Toting Goons!

Underrated Movie #110: Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey

More Sadler, more creatures from the afterlife...
Title: Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey
Year: 1991
Director: Peter Hewitt
Writers: Chris Matheson & Ed Solomon
Stars: Keanu Reeves, Alex Winter, William Sadler, Joss Ackland, Pam Grier, George Carlin

The Story: The happy-go-lucky time-travelling slackers return, but this time they explore heaven and hell, challenging death to a series of games, including Battleship, Clue and Twister. Only by making death their thrall can they get back in time to win the Battle the Bands that will make them the greatest prophets of human history.

How it Came to be Underrated: People love to complain about Hollywood’s franchise addiction today, but they forget about how much more ubiquitous sequels were 20 years ago, when every minor hit automatically got one. According to the old rules, we would now be seeing Wedding Crashers 6 and Mean Girls 3. The vast majority of those sequels were truly terrible…

Why It’s Cheesy Fun:

  1. …but something strange happened in the summer of 1991, as the sequel era was dwindling. Some lame comedies from previous years got unnecessary sequels that turned out to be much better, weirder, and more subversive than the originals. Directors were learning to take advantage of the laissez-faire approach studios took to sequels and use that freedom to make truly bizarre personal visions. Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure is unwatchable today, but its sequel is shockingly fun and beautifully absurd..
  2. Reeves and Winter are affably fun, but their characters are hindered by having indistinguishable personalities. What gives this movie its bite is Sadler’s absolutely daffy send-up of Bergman’s version of “Death” from The Seventh Seal, which he plays here as a hapless Swedish sad-sack deity. What on earth happened to Sadler’s career? He had a great run for a few years, then disappeared into minor TV roles shortly after his best-remembered role in Shawshank Redemption. At the very least he should be carrying his own CSI vehicle by now... and this role proves that he could have done anything.
  3. This is a great example of how even the zaniest movies need to tap into real emotions, against all odds—the movie couldn’t be more archly tongue-in-cheek, but the visions of hell Bill and Ted are confronted with nevertheless tap into very real, unique-but-universal anxieties.
  4. Re-watching this, I realized how dearly I miss the pre-CGI world. This movie has a super-low budget, but it still gamely swings for the rafters with wildly ambitious art direction that take us all the way through the full limits of human imagination, not constructed out of airless, hollow pixels, but out of actual sets, tangible props and practical effects that have weight and heft and shadows, allowing the actors to really interact with them in unexpected ways. It’s so much more fun to watch the movie knowing that, for one crazy month, all of this stuff actually existed!
  5. For instance, they make it clear in the featurette that this effect was achieved by actually blue-ing up their skin, hair and clothes. Isn’t that fun?

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Two other better-than-the-original sequels that I liked in 1991 were Addams Family Values and Hot Shots Part Deux (Bi-Winning!)

How Available Is It?: It’s on a bare-bones DVD with a fun little contemporary featurette.

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: Death Picks the Beauty Queen!


Underrated Movie #109: Tales from the Crypt Presents: Demon Knight

The Long-Awaited Return of Cheesy Movies Week:
Title: Tales from the Crypt Presents: Demon Knight
Year: 1994
Director: Ernest Dickerson
Writers: Ethan Reiff & Cyrus Voris & Mark Bishop
Stars: William Sadler, Billy Zane, Jada Pinkett, Brenda Backe, CCH Pounder, Thomas Haden Church, Gary Farmer

The Story: A wanderer who is being chased by a mysterious hunter takes refuge in a desert motel where he recruits the locals to make a last stand against an army of demons.

How it Came to be Underrated: I rarely cover horror movies on this blog, not because I don’t like them, but because they don’t get to be underrated for very long. Take a movie like Evil Dead 2, which seems to be the biggest inspiration for this movie. Horror enthusiasts, always hungry to tell each other about anything good, transformed it from a minor cult classic into a household name very quickly. So why has this one remained underrated? Because of its tangential association with HBO’s lame “Tales of the Crypt” TV show, which squandered the name of the legendary EC comics by transforming their grim horror into campy comedy.

Why It’s Cheesy Fun:

  1. Sure enough, this movie begins with a crappy intro by the puppet Crypt Keeper from the TV show, which is not directed by Dickerson. Lucky you, on DVD you can just skip the first 8 minutes of the movie and totally ignore that whole element. Then you just have a lean and mean little 80-minute horror movie left, which doesn’t need to be a second longer.
  2. Ernest Dickerson was the first major black cinematographer and when he switched to directing, he was happy to bring a subversive racial sensibility to the B-movies he took on. Usually black people die first in horror movies, but even in ones where they become the survivors (Night of the Living Dead, Anaconda) there’s always an implication that they survive because they’re somehow inherently more moral, which still defines everybody according to race. This movie avoids both problems: the last survivor just happens to be most kick-ass character.
  3. What sinks most horror movies are the performances. I suppose Dickerson was able to use his rep to get a great cast here, headlined by always great tough-guy William Sadler and Billy Zane at his strutting, cocky, charismatic best. Pounder, Pinkett, Church and Farmer all do dependably fine work too.
  4. I always wince when fantasy or horror stories define good as the Light and evil as the Darkness, but this one makes it work by first defining the villains’ earthly manifestations as clearly understood physical challenges for our heroes with fixed rules and limits that allow us to predict what might happen next. The “blood seals” they put on the doors let us always see where the safe spaces are, and we get to see how and why that space keeps shrinking throughout the movie, which is always essential. No questions here of “why don’t they just…”
  5. I also firmly believe that all horror movies need an element of psychological temptation, not just physical threats, and this movie juggles the two well. Horror writers do well to remember that the thing we’re most afraid of is ourselves. (But don’t worry, there’s still enough gore for the gorehounds too)

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Zane was also underrated in the uber-cheesy adaptation of The Phantom. Sadler was also underrated in… tomorrow’s movie! That’s right, it’s a two-day Sadler-fest!

How Available Is It?: It’s got a nice-enough bare-bones DVD

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: Danger!


Underrated Movie #84: Demolition Man

I told you I could go lower! The grand finale of Cheesy Movies Week!

Title: Demolition Man
Year: 1993
Director: Marco Brambilla (who?)
Writers: Peter M. Lenkov, Robert Reneau, Daniel Waters
Stars: Sylvester Stallone, Wesley Snipes, Sandra Bullock, Nigel Hawthorne (!), Benjamin Bratt, Denis Leary, Andre Gregory (!), Jesse Ventura

The Story: By 1996 (3 years later??), Los Angeles has been turned into a smoking ruin by out-of-control crime. When a rogue cop named Sgt. John Spartan (Stallone) goes all out to arrest a gung-ho hostage-taker named Simon Phoenix (Snipes), the hostages end up dead, so both the criminal and the cop get put in a new cryogenic prison. Cut to 2032, when Phoenix escapes to wreak havoc on the politically-correct utopia of San Angeles. The goody-goody cops of the future realize that the only way to stop him is to unfreeze Sgt. Spartan, too.

How it Came to be Underrated: This movie isn’t just underrated, it’s thoroughly despised. The critics hated it at the time, and still do. Most of my own like-minded friends hated it, and still do. But I find it to be wildly enjoyable. Your mileage will probably vary.

Why It’s Great Cheesy Fun:

  1. Remember when our country had so few problems that our worst-case-scenario for a dystopian future was an excess of political correctness? Even the near-future fears about an excess of street crime now seem quaint. The long-lost Americans of the ‘90s had no idea how good they had it.
  2. This plot description may sound knee-jerk right-wing but it actually plays out in a remarkably evenhanded way. Stallone really is too reckless and the future really is safer and rather idyllic even though they did it by outlawing weapons, alcohol, caffeine, contact sports, meat, bad language, chocolate, gasoline, uneducational toys, abortion and pregnancy without a license. The re-liberation that Stallone brings to the future is frankly shown to be a risky trade-off.
  3. The same critics that hated this movie were busy overpraising Paul Verhoeven’s ultra-violent futuristic epics. Some of those movies weren’t bad, but I always found Verhoeven’s satirical elements to be juvenile and simplistic in movies like Robocop and Starship Troopers. By contrast, I find this movie’s satire, while very silly, to be far more clever and amusing. Too many satires make the mistake of painting all of their targets as disingenuous hypocrites, but it’s far more interesting if there are some true believers on both sides.
  4. This was Bullock’s first widely-released movie and she’s already stealing every scene as a perky future cop. I remember hoping that I would see her again. It’s nice when these things actually work out. Only Bullock is plucky and guileless enough to pull off malapropisms like “He’s finally matched his meat. You really licked his ass!” (Yes, that’s the general level of the humor. I never said that the movie wasn’t crude.)

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: This movie forms an informal trilogy with two other Andre Gregory movies, My Dinner With Andre and Vanya on 42nd Street. Actually, that’s not true at all. But you should watch those anyway. Then watch this one. When you’re drunk.

How Available Is It?: It’s on DVD with commentary (which I sadly have yet to listen to)

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: The Forever Machine!


Underrated Movie #83: The Scorpion King

Day three of Cheesy Movies Week, featuring the most disreputable movie I’ve ever recommended on this site. Can I top it tomorrow? Surely not…
Title: The Scorpion King
Year: 2002
Director: Chuck Russell
Writers: Stephen Sommers, Jonathan Hales, William Osborne, David Hayter
Stars: Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Kelly Hu, Michael Clarke Duncan, Grant Heslov (yes, the co-writer of Good Night and Good Luck)

The Story: In times of yore, a charming mercenary rescues a sorceress and kills a tyrant.

How it Came to be Underrated: This movie had no right to be any good. It’s a prequel to a pretty bad movie, The Mummy 2, and it was the first starring role for a WWE wrestler, still acting under his ring name! But the reviews were surprisingly positive, so I gave it a shot, with very low expectations. I’ll be damned if I didn’t think it was the best sword and sorcery movie I’d ever seen. Every time I re-watch it, I expect to finally become embarrassed by it, but I love it more and more each time.

Why It’s Great Cheesy Fun:

  1. Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard, even the recent Mummy movies... What do they all have in common? Well let’s just come right out and say it: They were all pretty blatantly racist. The sword and sorcery genre has always had an unfortunate racist subtext, even on those rare occasions that they aren’t overtly racist. That’s why its so cool to see such a well-made movie that passes the heroic mantle on to people of color. This is the best Conan-type movie we’re ever going to get, but I don’t mind at all that it would have made Howard himself roll over in his grave.
  2. Of course the whole movie rests on the Rock’s shoulders and he turns out to be even more charismatic on the big screen than he was on TV. He swagger is like a cross between Burt Lancaster and Burt Reynolds. I declare him to be an honorary Burt! Here he is, buried up to his neck in an ant mount, crushing an ant with his chin. Tell me that isn’t bad ass.
  3. I simply love the nuts and bolts of this movie. Each scene and sequence is cleverly constructed, with its own set-up and pay-off. The Rock is in better fighting shape and more agile than Schwarzenegger ever was, but he finds, time after time, that he has to rely on cleverness, not brawn, to triumph over each mini-challenge. The sequence where he outwits his foes by luring them into a sirocco is simply stunning.
  4. One of the reasons why prequels always suck is because we know how they have to end, right? But that’s what I love most of all about this movie! This was supposed to tell the story of how the Rock became the titular monster who had menaced Brandan Fraser in The Mummy 2. But then, at the end of this movie, the Rock avoids that curse! Even Hu is shocked. She reminds him that he’s destined to end up cursed, but he just cocks his trademark smirk and assures her: “Then let’s make our own destiny.” What a great testimony to free will! The hero not only triumphs over fate, he triumphs over continuity itself!

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Before I saw this my favorite sword-and sorcery movies were those made in the ‘60s by Ray Harryhausen: Jason and the Argonauts and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. They’re still a lot of fun today, but Harryhausen had a weakness for bland leading men, who failed to, shall we say, bring it.

How Available Is It?: It’s on DVD with a fun commentary.

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: Sentenced to the Vat!


Underrated Movie #82: Terminal Velocity

Welcome to day 2 of Cheesy Movies Week. I should make it clear here that each selection will get cheesier and more disreputable all week long. That's right: Hard Rain was the classy one.

Title: Terminal Velocity
Year: 1994
Director: Deran Sarafian (who?)
Writer: David Twohy
Stars: Charlie Sheen, Nastassja Kinski, James Gandolfini

The Story: Sheen is “Ditch Brody”, a hotshot skydiving instructor with a sketchy safety recond. Kinski seems to be a nervous student, but then she dies in her first jump—or so it appears… Pesky D. A. Gandolfini is ready to prosecute, but Sheen realizes that nobody is what they seem. Soon he and not-so-dead-Kinski find themselves in an escalating series of death-defying scrapes with various Russian bad guys.

How it Came to be Underrated: This had to compete against an inferior Wesley Snipes skydiving thriller that came out at the same time. Neither one made much money. Also, it has Charlie Sheen in it, so nobody was ever going to take it seriously, which is understandable, really...

Why It’s Great Cheesy Fun:

  1. CGI has ruined action movies in so many ways. First, it always looks flatter and emptier than model work. Secondly, models, though small, are still affected by gravity and other laws of physics, which the CGI guys can never bother to re-create. Third, and most importantly, when you had to shoot a stunt to get the shot, the audience knew that someone was actually jumping out of an airplane, even if it was just a stuntman with a bad wig. We weren’t just watching a character do it, we were also watching a real person do it too (albeit in different circumstances than we saw on screen). Nobody knew it at the time, but this movie was right at the end of the golden age of stuntwork.
  2. And the stunts in this movie are just insanely thrilling. It all culminates in scene where Kinski is locked in the trunk of a car that is pushed out the back of a plane. Sheen has to get her out in mid-air. I dare any jaded movie-snob to not pump your fist in the air and should “hell yeah” at the end of that one.
  3. But here’s the big problem with this movie: I talked before about how much more heroic it is if the hero is trying to save his community and not just get revenge, but the opposite situation is even more problematic. The hero has to have some connection to the people he’s saving. In this movie, an Arizona sky-bum realizes he has to stop a bunch of spies in order to save the Russian economy. Sorry, but we’ll never believe that he would care about that. Sheen obviously doesn’t believe it himself.
  4. When The Sopranos hit, I, like everybody else, was wondering where the hell James Gandolfini had come from. I was surprised to realize that I’d actually seen him play the heavy in a half-dozen movies without ever knowing it was the same guy, which is to his credit. He disappeared into each role until he finally found his opportunity to be a star.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Twohy later wrote and directed a neat little WWII submarine ghost story called Below. The only real competitor I think this movie had for bragging rights to the best aerial stuntwork was an underrated Timothy Dalton James Bond movie, The Living Daylights.

How Available Is It?: It’s on DVD.

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: Open Up, Airboy!


Underrated Movie #81: Hard Rain

How town! Summer in the city! The back of my neck is feeling dirty and gritty! It's time we indulged in some seriously silly action movies! Welcome to Cheesy Movies Week! Fair warning: I will be heaping praise on some widely-despised examples of cinema.
Title: Hard Rain
Year: 1998
Director: Mikael Salomon
Writer: Graham Yost
Stars: Morgan Freeman, Christian Slater, Randy Quaid, Minnie Driver, Ed Asner, Betty White

The Story: Two armored car guards try to clear the money out of the banks along a river before it floods, but a well-armed heist gang shows up to take advantage of the situation. One guard gets away with the money and the gang chases him through a rapidly-flooding town.

How it Came to be Underrated: Graham Yost sold three high-profile big action spec scripts for big money in rapid succession: First Speed, then Broken Arrow, then this. The other two earned back their big pricetags, but this one turned out to be one high-concept heist too many for audiences. Slater is underwhelming as always, but this is nevertheless an endlessly entertaining cheeseball heist/disaster flick that is criminally underseen.

Why It’s Great Cheesy Fun:

  1. I talked before about how important character consistency is in a movie like Sideways, but it’s even more important in a movie like this. We’ve got 15 characters, (two in the armored car, four in the heist crew, four in the sheriff’s office, two old coots, the guy who runs the dam, and Minnie Driver in the church) each of whom has a totally different motivation for being where they are, even within each group. The audience has to understand all 15 different personalities very quickly in the first ten minutes, because each will have an unexpected reaction once the heist happens. We get to compare their reactions to what we thought we knew about them. The reactions surprise us, but they still make sense with what we’d already learned. It’s remarkably good writing, all the more so because it plays like artless escapism.
  2. One problem with writing pulpy thrillers is that you not only have to come up with a believable reason why one person would try to kill another person, you have to keep coming up with more and more reasons—Every time the advantage shifts (which has to happen about every ten minutes), the original motivations tend to disappear and you have to come up with a new reason for violence to erupt.
  3. That’s why it’s so clever for this movie to combine the heist and disaster genre. First of all, the heist gives everybody a reason to put themselves in harm’s way, which most disaster movies lack. Second, the movie gets to jump back and forth between the flood and the villains as a source of conflict, so neither one has to go too far over the top.
  4. But all that pales in comparison with this movie’s true claim to fame: This was the very first movie in Betty White’s ongoing salty-talking-little-old-lady guest-cameo period, which has just now reached it apotheosis. Here you can see where it all began!

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Yost has had a very smart career: after making his name by selling a bunch of cheesy action spec scripts, he used that clout to change course and start creating critically-acclaimed TV shows like “Band of Brothers” and “Justified”. Good for him! That’s the dream of every cheesy-thriller writer.

How Available Is It?: The DVD is bare-bones, but I don’t think that the Criterion Collection is going to get around to this one anytime soon.

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: Uncanny Tales!