Sunday, 29 January 2012

Go Go Former Rangers

Movie Review: Broken Path

(2008; dir. Koichi Sakamoto)

I seem to have a peculiar relationship with Johnny Yong Bosch. All my life, he seems to be there in the background, a quiet curator of stuff I consider to be cool. At five years old, I was a die hard fan of the Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers. I didn't much care at the time who was playing the Rangers, because, y'know, five years old. Nevertheless, there was Johnny Yong Bosch as Adam Park, the Black Ranger, serving up U-rated ass-kickings every day after school. Flash forward a few years and I'm a teenager just starting to get into anime. By the way, did I mention that two of my favourite anime characters are Shotaro Kaneda and Lelouch Lamperouge? Huh. Well, I'm sure it's just a coincidence.

Anyway, a few years further on and I'm an intrepid young student developing a taste for brutal kung-fu flicks, and WELL WHADDAYA KNOW ABOUT THAT.

I'm not actually suggesting that there's some sort of Johnny Yong Bosch-based conspiracy whereby he's contractually obligated to produce content conforming to my tastes in media at any given point in my life. But if I ever get into, say, necrophillic porn, I'm starting to think Mr. Yong Bosch could have reason to worry...

Anyway, Broken Path is one of the few recent western films specialising in the kind of visceral, high-impact choreography that Ong-Bak made such a big deal in 2003, and it's become the subject of some minor cult celebrity amongst martial arts fans on account of the sheer long-windedness of its fight scenes. The sales pitch is a simple one; Yong Bosch is thrown together with fellow Power Rangers alumnus Daniel Southworth and the four members of Alpha Stunts, director Koichi Sakamoto's stunt troupe (because when you have your own stunt troupe, that's when you know you've made it), and they fight. And then they fight. And then they keep fucking fighting.

I'm not be able to make the following statement with absolute certainty, partly because I haven't seen every hardcore fighting movie from the four corners of the Earth, and partly because it can be difficult to qualify what is a fight scene and what's not. It doesn't seem like something that should be complicated - duh, a fight scene is a scene where characters fight - but where exactly does a fight start and stop. Is it when the first punch is thrown? The point at which combat is a clear inevitability? If characters stop to exchange mid-fight banter, should we pause the stopwatch? It's like measuring a coastline: results can change drastically depending on the degree of precision. All the same, it needs to be said - Broken Path has quite possibly the highest ratio of fighting to non-fighting of any film in history. With a running time of 90 minutes, there's not much more than 25 minutes of non-action even at a generous estimate. The remainder - literally every second - is comprised entirely of punches, kicks, throws, stabbings, slashings and occasionally, just to break things up, improvised use of gardening implements as weaponry.

The film that Broken Path most often and vividly calls to mind is Ryuhei Kitamura's low-budget horror-comedy-action triumph Versus, insofar as both movies are low-budget independent efforts following a group of characters around a single setting in a state of bellum omnium contra omnes. And yet, despite having markedly less competent fight choreography and an even lower budget, Versus nevertheless seems to me to be a far superior movie. This is in large part because while in Versus, Kitamura's near-constant onslaught of beatdowns actually went somewhere; there may not have been much of a plot, but stuff certainly happened in that fights were won and lost, contenders dispatched and new ones introduced at a fair clip in order to keep things fresh and engaging. Sakamoto, by contrast, uses only six combatants throughout the entire movie, and for 75 minutes all they do is beat each other down in various permutations, taking an eternity to actually incapacitate each other. It's an unusual paradigm around which to structure an action film. It's also a dumb paradigm. After a certain number of devastating roundhouse kicks and haymakers successfully connect, it becomes apparent that the fighters will continue to get back up and keep fighting as long as the runtime requires it, and once you realise this, the fighting loses all sense of tension. Even when one of the characters is permanently dispatched, it comes at a totally arbitrary juncture, which is to say the kill could obviously have come at any other point in the movie were it not for the mandate of the script that the deaths need to be evenly spaced throughout the latter half of the runtime.

Oh yeah, the script. You'll notice I've avoided any mention of the specifics of Broken Path's story so far. Partly this is because, as with any martial arts flick, story is a secondary concern, and partly it's because I don't really want the headache that thinking about Broken Path's story would bring, seeing as it's death-defyingly retarded even by the skewed standard of a martial arts flick - possibly the only cinematic genre with the required standard for a script actually lower than that of a slasher movie. Jack (Yong Bosch) has just moved into a small homestead in Texas with his wife Lisa (Pamela Walworth) and their daughter Maddy (Lanie Taylor), where they live out the first quarter hour of the film in a blissful familial idyll so sickly sweet it's actually more painful to watch than any of the subsequent stabbings and dismemberments. Then, at exactly 16 minutes and 7 seconds in there comes a change of pace so sudden and jarring that it actually made a more effective jump scare than I've seen in many a horror film, a bunch of knife-wielding, mask-wearing Asian psychos (the Alpha Stunts team; Motoko Nagino, Tadahiro Nakamura, Anthony Nanakornpanom and Sonny Sison to give them their rightful names) burst in and do their damndest to kill all of them. Later a would-be ally, Yoshi (Daniel Southworth, whose martial skill becomes much less intimidating when he turns out to sound almost exactly like Matthew Perry from Friends) comes to bail Jack out, and we learn that the two of them were forced into life as assassins for the Yakuza as children. Jack escaped and started a family nine years prior, and now his past has caught up with him.

It's so fucking stupid! I don't want to repeat myself, but it really does warrant emphasis. It's obvious from the get go that the writers have seen and enjoyed David Cronenberg's A History of Violence, and promptly set about making their own junior-high fanfic level reinterpretation of the same material, in which adult actors utter lines like "that's the prison that's been my life for as long as I can remember" with completely straight faces. And that's even before you factor in the bit where it doesn't make any sense. At all. Ever. How did the Yakuza find them anyway? Why does one of the most organised and ruthless criminal organisations on the planet not think to give its assassins guns? How did Jack convince Lisa he was a ninety-pound weakling for nine years when she's obviously seen him without his shirt and can tell he's ripped like an athlete? These are basic questions which the screenplay must answer, dammit! I wouldn't usually mind, but it's all played so earnestly, steadfast in its conviction that it has as much drama and pathos and nuance as anything that Cronenberg guy can do. Again, I'd raise Versus as a point of comparison. That film was dumber than a bag of particularly dumb rocks, but it knew it and played it for black comedy every step of the way. Its punk rock irreverence was joyous where Broken Path's gestures at tearful compassion are cringeworthy.

With all that moaning out of the way though, Broken Path isn't without its pleasures. The way it's structured aside, the fighting is really good. Not quite the best, mind you; the level of skill the Alpha Stunts team demonstrate isn't quite even from member to member, and Yong Bosch and Southworth are clearly the best screenfighters in the room at any given time (although Nanakornpanom definitely has his moments). The choreography doesn't have quite the acrobatic splendour of a Tony Jaa or Scot Adkins vehicle, or the lean, efficient dynamism of Jackie Chan's fight scenes, but it does have weighty, visceral sequences of fast, brutal bloodletting by the truckload. In the sharpest possible contrast to the script, the film is technically immaculate, with editing, staging, employment of props and gore effects all the best they could be on this sort of budget. And again, I direct your attention to the sheer volume of hitting going on. Seriously people, 75 minutes of fighting, basically non-stop. For better or for worse, being the most efficient delivery apparatus for fighting in cinematic history is definitely an achievement for a film to have. If you've sat through movies like Tom-Yum-Goong or Ip Man and thought "this is good, but it would be so much better without all the goddamn talking," (and you wouldn't be the only one at that) then Broken Path may be your movie.

But even then, I reccommend jamming hot forks in your ears for the first 16 minutes and 7 seconds.

Oh yeah. This place.

Fuck, I have a blog!?

Well, I'm as surprised as anyone else. It looks like I'll have to put some work into rejuvenating this place, starting with the description on the right. I'm 21 now, rather than 19, and that feels every inch as depressing as it sounds. I guess I've also put lie to that whole bit about my insatiable need to write down my thoughts on popular culture, considering it's been more than a year since I even acknowledged this place. When you've got a bigger gap between posts on your blog than news updates on Wintersun's website, you're doing the whole blogging thing wrong.

Anyone who's followed my blogging progress from my halcyon youth as a reviewer for through my vlogging period on Youtube to the present day (and if you fall into that category: hi, Donald!), you're probably starting to recognise a fits-and-starts pattern where I write furiously for a few weeks or months, only to quit in a huff when I fail to become the overnight web celebrity I know deep down I was born to be. I'd say it was my sincere intention to stick with it this time, come hell or high water, but that's the case every time to begin with, so I won't. I'll content myself then to say I hope to maintain a steady schedule of sharp and timely criticism and commentary on the raft of pop culture detritus on which I float through day-to-day life.

Oh, I also do an internet radio show now out of my student union. An hour a week, live from 11.00pm to 12.00 midnight GMT on Thursdays at I intend to mention this blog here on this week's show. If you happen to be brought here after this coming Thursday as a result of listening to my show, my past self greets you and hopes you appreciate the Escher-esque indefinite reccurance of self promotion.

So, what to talk about for my first post back? Maybe a martial arts movie...