Film Review: Diamonds Are Forever (1971)

Release Date: December 14th, 1971 (West Germany)
Directed by: Guy Hamilton
Written by: Richard Maibaum, Tom Mankiewicz
Based on: the James Bond novels by Ian Fleming
Music by: John Barry
Cast: Sean Connery, Jill St. John, Charles Gray, Lana Wood, Jimmy Dean, Bruce Cabot, Bernard Lee, Lois Maxwell, Desmond Llewelyn, Bruce Glover, Putter Smith, Norman Burton, Sid Haig, Connie Mason (uncredited)

Eon Productions, United Artists, 120 Minutes

Review:

“If at first you don’t succeed Mr. Kidd…?” – Mr. Wint, “Try, try again, Mr. Wint.” – Mr. Kidd

Sadly, Diamonds Are Forever is closer to the tone and style of the Roger Moore era than the Sean Connery era. Maybe the campiness that would be front and center in the early Roger Moore Bond films wasn’t really because of Moore but were because the films were a product of the 1970s. Connery’s pictures were more serious until this one but all the others came out in the ’60s. And then once Moore got into the ’80s, his films weren’t as cheesy. I blame the ’70s.

Anyway, this is the worst of the Sean Connery James Bond pictures. This is even worse than the unofficial sequel Never Say Never Again. Frankly, this is one of the worst Bond films ever made. But this is James Bond and it is still quite enjoyable and certainly better than the worst films of the Brosnan era.

I love the old school Las Vegas setting in this movie, it just fit the time and the James Bond mythos well. Plus, Bond going to Vegas was probably long overdue, by this point. But I’ve also always had a love for old school Vegas, its setting, its culture and its style.

I also really enjoyed Charles Gray’s take on Ernst Stavro Blofeld. This wasn’t Gray’s first Bond movie but he got to ham it up in a key role and he’s one of those actors that is just great as a villain. This is one of my favorite roles that he’s ever played, alongside the fiendish Mocata from The Devil Rides Out, which also starred Bond alum Christopher Lee (a.k.a. Francisco Scaramanga from The Man with the Golden Gun).

In this picture, we also get Jill St. John, who has the distinction of being the first American Bond Girl, and the Jimmy Dean, country music and breakfast sausage king.

My favorite characters in the film though, are the duo of Bruce Glover and Putter Smith as Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd. They plot, they scheme and they get the better of Bond… twice! Granted, they should have outright killed him quickly in both those moments but Bond escaped death and came back to bite them in the ass. They also had a relationship that probably points to them being gay, which was pretty uncommon for a 1971 film that was made for the mainstream.

On a side note: scorpions don’t usually sting people and they typically don’t kill humans, let alone instantaneously.

This film did do some clever stuff too. I liked how Blofeld had decoys and the movie really points out that he has been surgically altering his face this whole time and that it wasn’t just a case of not being able to get Blofeld actors to return to the part.

The biggest issue with this film though is the scale. Following up On Her Majesty’s Secret Service wasn’t an easy task but this film feels smaller, more confined and cheaper. Maybe this has to do with the big salary that Connery needed to come back to the franchise. It was a record setting fee for an actor at the time and it’s possible that it effected the actual production and that the movie had to be made more frugally.

Still, I do love this motion picture. The classic era of Bond from the ’60s through the ’80s is hard to top. These movies are just magic. Even when things don’t work, the films all still have something cool to take away from them. Diamonds Are Forever is no different.

Rating: 6.5/10
Pairs well with: The other Sean Connery James Bond movies, as well as that George Lazenby one. But this is actually is closer in tone to the Roger Moore films of the ’70s.

Film Review: American Ninja 5 (1993)

Release Date: March 29th, 1993 (Greece)
Directed by: Bobby Jean Leonard
Written by: John Bryant Hedberg, Greg Latter, George Saunders
Music by: Daniel May
Cast: David Bradley, Lee Reyes, Pat Morita, James Lew, Norman Burton

Cannon Films, 102 Minutes

Review:

“Whoa!” – Hiro

I am a massive fan of the American Ninja franchise. So it sort of pains me to admit that I actually didn’t even know about this film until it was out for about a decade. There are reasons for this though, so let me explain.

First off, the film does not fit in with the first four movies in the American Ninja series. It is its own separate story and David Bradley plays a completely different character than his more famous Sean Davidson from the two pictures before this one.

Reason being, this was originally developed as a film called American Dragons. Ultimately, instead of piggy backing off of the American Ninja vibe, as Cannon did with American Samurai (also with David Bradley), they just threw up their hands and called this American Ninja 5. Sadly, this could have evolved into its own series had Cannon kept the original title and then didn’t go belly up almost immediately after.

Secondly, this film did not get a theatrical release in the United States, at least that I know of. It came out on video in international markets in 1993 but didn’t actually hit U.S. video store shelves until 1995. And even though I worked in video stores in that era, I never came across it. This may be because of Cannon Films ceasing to exist and their later films lacking real distribution.

This chapter in the series gets an incredibly bad rap. It has a 2.8 on IMDb (that’s out of 10) and no real critics featured on Rotten Tomatoes have even reviewed it or rated it. As a film, all on its own, I think it is better than the two previous American Ninja outings. While the fourth one featured David Bradley and the returning Michael Dudikoff, it completely missed the mark. The third film (and Bradley’s first) was really kind of a dud with really bad fight choreography and lacking a formidable evil ninja.

I think that people dislike this film solely for the reason that it isn’t a part of the universe from the first four movies. I get that. However, as a standalone picture, it is the best ninja movie that Cannon did since American Ninja 2: The Confrontation.

The film features Bradley, who I always think is pretty solid, and adds in Pat Morita (a.k.a. Mr. Miyagi), James Lew and Lee Reyes (the younger brother of Ernie Reyes Jr. and son of Ernie Reyes Sr.). Morita is barely in this movie but it opens up the idea that he could have been bigger going forward, had this turned into its own little series.

The film also looks better than the previous two. It gets out and gets more exotic than just trying to have South Africa and Lesotho stand in geographically for whatever random country the previous three films took place in. This chapter was filmed in Los Angeles, Venezuela and Italy. It was the best looking film since American Ninja 2 and it did a good job utilizing its surroundings.

The action was also better than the other Bradley films and this thing just feels like it is better directed, better acted and better produced.

It still isn’t a good film but it certainly isn’t a horrible one. While the villainous Viper came off as cheesy and hokey, more often than not, his Wolverine-like claw made up for it. I also liked that they got more colorful with the ninjas in this film. We’ve had colorful ninjas throughout the American Ninja series but in this film, they seemed to be utilized more. The film sort of plays like a late 80s/early 90s action video game. It really got me nostalgic and I had to fire up Bad Dudes on my original Nintendo.

I like American Ninja 5. At least, I like it more than 3 and 4. It is hard to top 1 and 2 but this was David Bradley’s best effort. However, like part 4, I was really missing the presence of Steve James. And it would have been cool to have seen Dudikoff thrown back in, even if this wasn’t a real sequel to part 4.

Rating: 5/10

Film Review: Bloodsport (1988)

Release Date: February 26th, 1988
Directed by: Newt Arnold
Written by: Christopher Cosby, Mel Friedman, Sheldon Lettich
Music by: Paul Hertzog
Cast: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Donald Gibb, Leah Ayres, Norman Burton, Forest Whitaker, Bolo Yeung

Cannon Film Distributors, 92 Minutes

Review:

“You break my record, now I break you, like I break your friend.” – Chong Li

After making notable and entertaining appearances in No Retreat, No Surrender and Black Eagle, it was a no brainer to give Jean-Claude Van Damme his own starring vehicle. It was also a good fit, putting him into a loose biopic about the life of martial artist Frank Dux. Granted, this just covers the first Kumite tournament that Dux fought in. However, it’s a more compelling story than what was typical of the late 80s martial arts genre.

In reality, Dux’s claims about his fighting history have been disputed and proven to be false. Regardless, the tale evolved into this movie.

This film was also the first time that Van Damme and Bolo Yeung appeared together. They would also duke it out in Double Impact and have talked about making a sequel to that film.

Alongside Van Damme and Yeung is Donald Gibb, who is probably most known for playing Ogre in three of the four Revenge of the Nerds movies. Norman Burton and a young Forest Whitaker play the men sent to Hong Kong to bring in the AWOL Frank Dux.

In Bloodsport, we follow Dux as he leaves the Army and heads to Hong Kong to fight in the secret underground fighting tournament Kumite. He breaks fighting legend Chong Li’s (Yeung) “world record” and thus, paints a target on his back. Li, who is infamous for murdering his opponents, sends a message to Dux when he severely injures his friend Jackson (Gibb). Dux, while evading the military men sent to retrieve him, must step back into the Kumite ring and avenge his friend against the psychotic Chong Li.

Bloodsport is interesting in that it puts a lot of focus on the tournament itself and the fighters in it. It showcases the varying martial arts styles from different regions of the world and when I saw this as a kid, it was the closest thing we had to a live action version of a tournament fighting game. It was like Street Fighter II coming alive on the screen. Well, until Jean-Claude Van Damme made that Street Fighter movie that is nowhere near as awesome as Bloodsport.

The film has solid action but unfortunately, it takes a half hour or so to get to it. Cannon Films usually kicked off their movies with a big early action sequence. Bloodsport differs from that formula but the action it contains makes up for that lack of instant gratification.

Bloodsport is also one of the best films Cannon ever produced. It is also, still to this day, one of Van Damme’s best pictures. This, alongside Kickboxer, are the two movies I use as the measuring stick for Van Damme’s filmography.

Rating: 7/10

Film Review: Fade to Black (1980)

Release Date: October 14th, 1980
Directed by: Vernon Zimmerman
Written by: Vernon Zimmerman
Music by: Craig Safan
Cast: Dennis Christopher, Tim Thomerson, Gwynne Gilford, Norman Burton, Linda Kerridge, Morgan Paull, Eve Brent, Mickey Rourke

Compass International, American Cinema Releasing, 102 Minutes

Review:

This was a movie that I was pleasantly surprised by. I honestly didn’t expect much. I thought it would be a typical early 80s slasher picture, which were a dime a dozen. It was a lot more than that though and it also had a lot of character and charm.

Additionally, this has Irwin Yablans name on it as a producer and while he did produce some good stuff, he also gave us those shit sandwiches Laserblast and Parasite. It is hard to forgive films as bad as those two.

The real highlight of this film was the performance by Dennis Christopher. He was really likable, even up to the end, regardless of the fact that he did go on a bit of a killing spree. He seemed like a nice and genuine kid that lost his mind because his mother was horrible and people treated him like dirt. Plus, he was a bit of a social recluse and lived vicariously through movies.

Christopher just did great and put in a strong performance. As the lead character, he stepped out in front of a fairly mediocre script and gave this picture some life that it otherwise wouldn’t have had with a lesser actor or someone not truly embracing the role.

It was actually cool to see a young Mickey Rourke in this too. While he didn’t have a lot of screen time, he made the most out of what he did have.

Linda Kerridge was mesmerizing as the Marilyn Monroe lookalike Marilyn O’Connor. She was the apple of Dennis Christopher’s eye and she did well with the part and the tough task of living up to the iconic comparison.

The premise to Fade to Black is pretty unique for a slasher flick. Our killer, the nice but awkward Eric Binford (Dennis Christopher), gets tired of those who treat him like garbage and loses his mind. He starts picking people off and does so as characters from his favorite movies. At one point he is Dracula, then The Mummy, then Hopalong Cassidy, then James Cagney’s Cody Jarrett from White Heat. His first kill was a reenactment of a scene from the film noir classic Kiss of Death.

Ultimately, this leads to a fantastic showdown between Binford and the Los Angeles Police Department as he stands atop Grauman’s Chinese Theatre wielding a machine gun, quoting James Cagney’s lines from the finale of White Heat.

When Binford is killing or mentally recalling a moment in film, the movie cuts in those famous scenes for reference. The transitions are clunky, surreal and strangely edited but it is effective because of its oddness and disjointed presentation.

Fade to Black is thoroughly enjoyable and it stands out in a subgenre of horror that is incredibly formulaic and cookie cutter. It greatly benefits from the performance of Dennis Christopher and its originality. It is definitely a slasher flick worth its weight in blood.

Rating: 7/10

Film Review: Pray For Death (1985)

Release Date: August 9th, 1985
Directed by: Gordon Hessler
Written by: James Booth
Music by: Thomas Chase
Cast: Sho Kosugi, Norman Burton, James Booth, Kane Kosugi, Donna Kei Benz, Michael Constantine

Transworld Entertainment, 92 Minutes

Review:

“I’m going to burn your kid like a roman candle.” – Limehouse

After three awesome ninja movies for Cannon Films, quintessential 80s ninja action star Sho Kosugi took his talents to Transworld Entertainment to make Pray For Death. This, more than his other Cannon films, felt like a true spiritual sequel to Revenge of the Ninja, Kosugi’s greatest movie. This is a pretty close second to that film but doesn’t quite measure up to it.

The story actually isn’t even that different from Revenge of the Ninja. In this movie, Kosugi moves his family to America to start a new life away from his ninja past. The family opens their own business, a restaurant. They quickly have a beef with some mobsters. One of Kosugi’s kids (played by his real life kids) is kidnapped. Then his wife and one of his kids is rundown by mobsters in a car. His wife is then murdered in the hospital. Kosugi finally straps on his ninja gear and goes Ginsu City all over Houston, Texas.

While the Texas setting didn’t give us a cowboys versus ninjas scenario like one would hope, it still gave us a sole bad ass ninja against a bunch of evil mobsters. Although, there is that amazing scene where Kosugi literally flips over some hillbilly gangsters in a beat up pickup truck. That should have been nominated for the Brass Balls Stunt of the Year Award in 1985 but I just made that award up and I didn’t have the money to make my own trophies in 1985 because I was six. But maybe I’ll make it and mail it to Kosugi now.

Pray For Death is not the epic ninja masterpiece that Revenge of the Ninja is but it is pretty close. It doesn’t have as much action as Revenge but it is heavier on the drama and family elements of the story. Also, it doesn’t have the insane and lengthy ninja battle that capped off Revenge. Regardless, it is still one of the greatest cut’em up ninja flicks of the 1980s. Plus, any film that makes Kosugi the focal point, benefits greatly. Enter The Ninja and Ninja III: The Domination lacked when compared to Revenge and this film, simply because Kosugi wasn’t the main character and just more of a glorified cameo.

I love Pray For Death. For a film that wasn’t made by Cannon, it certainly feels like it was.