The Final Level

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There’s some kind of consensus going around that producer Berry Gordy’s 1985 Motown martial arts vehicle The Last Dragon is a movie that’s only possibly enjoyable in an ironic sense. Its status as a cult classic is uncontested, yet it maintains a low critical score on Rotten Tomatoes at 44% (audience score is significantly higher at 86%) and is considered by critics as respected as Leonard Maltin as “strictly kid-stuff”.

And I’m just here to say that’s straight up fucking bullshit.

There are to be fair more than a few flaws and faults of The Last Dragon as a motion picture, but I think it’s massively outweighed by just how much entertainment value it has overall and the different ways it functions as such – as cheesy martial arts inspirational movie, as relentless and genuine 80s time capsule (especially pre-Giuliani New York City), as African-American representation. And it doesn’t function as those things individually in a perfect way, but altogether it’s a singular object of grin-forcing fun.

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And it gets that way because Gordy and director Michael Schultz approached the film’s production and style no differently than that of a music video. Apparently they did not wanting a single frame to be empty of something to show off and resulting in a film always energized with lights and motion, arguably at the cost of consistent narrative or thematic depth but that’s not rare in 1980s cinema to begin with and it don’t bother me none. The very beginning of the film is shot like an Olympic commercial, focusing on the shape and power of young martial artist Taimak. It’s all slow-motion backlit swift and controlled karate moves, the kind you want to linger on when you intend for the subject to be a remembered star — punctuated by Taimak’s real-life chopping of an arrow in mid-flight. An action force to be reckoned with is introduced to us and then we see how he is housed in the body of the boyish naive Leroy Green under the guidance of a master (Thomas Ikeda) who insists that Leroy is finally ready to move on beyond his training in achievement of the Final Level, at which point Leroy will receive The Glow. That last part is kind of hard to parse out to be honest, but it seems to be an achievement akin to Super Saiyan status.

In any case, he sends Leroy on his way to explore the concrete jungle of New York City in which they reside on his own and the first thing the now lost Leroy decides to do is his favorite pastime of catching Bruce Lee movies at the local 42nd street theater. Which is one of the ways The Last Dragon incorporates reflexivity unknowingly, the way that Leroy looks up to Lee and watches the O’Hara fight in Enter the Dragon with rapt attention and wonder at Lee’s abilities without the slightest distraction from the characteristically New York-ian raucous crowd surrounding him – it’s the most effective way to tell us how much the character wants to be Lee in a film where we hear him referred to directly as “Bruce Leroy” and respected because of his adherence to the discipline of the martial arts, enough to operate his own dojo in Harlem. That The Last Dragon also has some Orientalist bent in the third act including twists that are extremely ungenerous and feel mean-spirited, given how much that culture inspires and animates its very hero. Not to mention, it’s always a kindred joy to have a movie hero that loves movies just as passionately as the viewer.

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There’s another sort of style that animates the film and that’s simply the music. Almost given as much screentime as Leroy’s Chinese inspirations is the apparent MTV-esque video music show 7th Heaven hosted by gorgeous VJ Laura Charles (Vanity) and Gordy and Schultz use that as the perfect opportunity to shove in a few music videos from the Motown label including Debarge’s “Rhythm of the Night”, which is the biggest nostalgia kick for me. 7th Heaven as a set alone is glimmering and flashy and shiny in such a loud 80s nightclub type of way, filled with dizzying mirrors sets and lasers, that it feels just at home for the impromptu pop setpieces that Vanity performs as an interlude to all the combat. And of course that’s to say nothing of the hilarious “Dirty Books”, a deliberately awful attempt at the vapidest New Wave knock-off you could find, performed by the lovable Faith Prince and with a gaudy bedroom set and even gaudier costumes for Prince to wear, basically literal trash attempting very transparently to pass off as fashion but completely betraying that it’s a traffic sign sewn over her butt and hazard lights over her breasts.

Between all of this, it’s no surprise that Def Jam Recordings later recruited Schultz for their own classic Hip Hop Artists musical vehicle Krush Groove (released later in the same year). Schultz also happened to direct Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which is the closest predecessor in his career to a movie this music-based and so I’m mortified by the possibility that that atrocity could have inspired Gordy to hire Schultz for this movie but hey… we got The Last Dragon out of it and hot damn does it pay off in extravagance, musical number-wise and action setpiece-wise (I’m not really surprising when I say the Glow does make an appearance and it’s literally exactly what it sounds like and it is chintzy and awesome to see in action).

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“Dirty Books” is more or less the element that ignites the closest thing The Last Dragon could call a plot as Eddie Arkadian (Chris Murney), the gangster girlfriend to Prince’s character Angela, attempts continuously to blackmail and threaten Laura into playing the video on 7th Heaven only to be thwarted again and again by Leroy’s happening at the right place at the right time (and each time Laura’s infatuation with him grows to the anxiety of the clearly inexperienced Leroy). Eventually, it gets to a point where Arkadian decides to escalate his battle with Leroy to using the big gun and… well, by that point, we’ve already met the big gun but I held off until the very end to give one of my favorite characters of all time a proper introduction.

Arkadian, despite being more rooted in the plot, is not the main antagonist. No, our main antagonist is introduced in that same 42nd street theater we see Leroy watch Enter the Dragon in and immediately starts ripping the scenery apart with his angry jaws. He’s loud and bombastic, maintaining a tall stance and a twisted snarl on his face that telegraphs how clearly antagonistic the character is without making him any less fun to watch. He spits an exhaustive amount of quotable lines like “Kiss my converse!” and “You just get that sucker to the designated place at the designated time, and I will gladly designate his ass for dismemberment!” with dedicated oversold menace barely hiding how much joy he gets quipping like that. And every moment he’s on-screen is a highlight of The Last Dragon. For all it banks on personalities – especially given how easily Vanity plays celebrity seductress in a surprisingly clean way, I think she kind of needs more credit for that performance – the late, great Julius Carry gifts us with a personality that adopts the aggressive belligerence of 80s New York City to the unapologetic hamminess of movie villany from his wild hair to his loose black-and-red (the colors of EVIL!) gi. If there’s any one reason you need to watch The Last Dragon right this second (and there are many), it is this character.

Is he the meanest? Is he the prettiest? Is he the baddest mofo low down around this town? Well who is he? Who is he? He can’t hear you…

SHO’NUFF.

The Shogun of Harlem.

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25 for 25 – TAE! KWON! DO!

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Miami Connection has everything I could absolutely adore about a movie, it’s a dream come true for me. Martial Arts Action, a pleasant cast of diverse characters, a happening scene full of lively extras, musical numbers by a rock band heavily indebted to the 80s (for that is where it takes place and was filmed), irrefutable evidence that the 80s were a ridiculous era for anything, contrary to its title it does not take place in Miami (a city I have little love for), ninjas, samurai swords, fighting gangs, anti-drug message, beach scenes, nightclubs, optimistic inspiration on all fronts…

… and not an iota of this movie is good. It’s actually pretty terrible. An incompetent film on all fronts, especially notable in the acting, rightfully lambasted by critics and audiences for its whiplash unintentional tonal shifts, its inability to carry even a milligram of gravity in its drama, oh and so many other massive faults but I am indeed getting ahead of myself. My point in the first paragraph is that as a child, I would not possibly have been the best judge of entertainment – having loved Van Helsing and Freddy vs. Jason – and so I probably would have had Miami Connection being one of my favorite movies if I were growing up.

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The plot is definitely the sort of concept that would have to excite me as a child: Dragon Sound is one of the hottest bands in S. Florida, made up of a group of orphan Taekwondo experts who go to the University of Central Florida. Still their popularity has been getting in the way of a rival band (that’s never named by still a central figure) and guitarist John (Vincent Hirsch)’s  relationship with backup singer Jane (Kathie Collier) has earned the ire of her brother Jeff (William Ergle), the leader of a gang that deals cocaine supplied by the Miami Ninja – a gang made up of Ninjas. It doesn’t just sound like a Cannon film, it sounds like a parody of a Cannon film and I ate those the hell up as a kid.

But I didn’t have a chance to see it growing up. Indeed, nobody had quite seen it en masse until earlier this decade, save for the film’s screening at the Cannes Film Market in 1987 in a fruitless search for a distributor before a very small eight-theater screening only in the Greater Orlando area a year later spreading into Melbourne, Daytona Beach, and (most curiously) West Germany. It fell into obscurity quickly until a programmer at Alamo Drafthouse famously screened the film randomly after winning a 35mm print on an eBay bid and after the screening received a positive response from the viewers, the recently created distributive chain from the theater Drafthouse Films fought tooth and nail to convince the film’s producer and co-director Y.K. Kim (who also starred as the leader of Dragon Sound and co-guitarist Mark), apprehensive after being burned from the production and release of the film, to allow them to re-release it to a reception loud enough to give the film a loving cult following. And thus, I’ve only been able to see it as an adult and yet nevertheless… it remains a favorite of mine despite full knowledge of its wanting quality.

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It’s crazy that a movie would not ask me to meet it halfway for unintentional comedy (something I often found to be somewhat laboring) with an attempt at an acting showpiece with the keyboardist Jim (Maurice Smith) tearfully delivering an overwrought and painfully expository (especially in specifying his half-Korean descent) monologue on searching for his lost father and the very tightly-wound Ergle delivering my favorite line delivery in the film, astounded by the concept that his sister could have a social life that he barks in confusion “A FRIEND?!” at Jane’s introduction of John. And yet Miami Connection is that, hamfisting its eagerness for a positive message to the audience with songs about being good to friends (“Friends”) or fighting against violence… however that works (“Against the Ninja”, let alone the infamous line about “stupid cocaine”). And given that the direct mouthpiece of this message is Kim himself as the author (alongside co-director Randall Park who also conceived of the film with him), suddenly it takes on a similar vein than the likes of Rock n’ Roll Nightmare or The Room, which both seemed to share a sort of vanity project ego trip for their own respective author-stars (Jon Mikl Thor and Tommy Wiseau respectively). Which… holy shit, maybe those two should be on this 25 for 25 series as well*.

But whereas The Room seems to come from a place of Wiseau desperately wanting to validate his self-esteem and Lord knows what the fuck Rock n’ Roll Nightmare comes from (maybe to have Thor fight muppets in Super Saiyan form like he’s always wanted to), Y.K. Kim – a local celebrity in Orlando for his martial arts teachings, being a Korean immigrant success story, and other deeds – seems to come from a place of true passion and want to give to the community and his students (many of whom make up the cast) a document of optimism and wholesome values, incorporating education, sobriety, and sincerity into the drama. And Miami Connection defies us to laugh at the ridiculous presentation of these issues, but it does not take them with levity and that means knowing what it means to Kim and the characters. And after all who COULD in the end disagree with such themes deep inside unless they were wholly miserable (hence why I don’t trust people who talk shit about the movie)?

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Miami Connection is a fascinating dance between outrageously poor craftsmanship in its overlit shots, discontinuous unrhythmed editing (both provided by the late Maximo Munzi, who apparently had a long and full career of over 100 films, after kicking off with L.A. Streetfighters and Miami Connection which is a miracle to me, though nothing else of note stands out from his list), and awkward leadfooted acting from every actor, all providing an energy that lifts up the positivity, even in spite of such insanely hypocritical bloodshed and violence in the finale. When the action comes, it only ramps up the insane energy rather than bring it down with eyes popping in the characters’ expressions of rage and the outrageous bloodletting for the final battle, by all the good people forgiving all the other good people for fighting because they had to and ending on a final title card “Only through the elimination of violence can we achieve world peace”. Oh, what absolute fun.

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Fun. That’s what the film brought to me. It told me that cinema’s not always about looking for what’s a masterpiece or a mouthpiece for your views or even to introduce you to something new, but something that brings such a visceral basic response from your body above all else and Miami Connection brings out the most pleasant feeling out of me: I have a lot of fun watching the movie. And I’m not even certain the fun is entirely ironic, that I actually can connect with Y.K. Kim’s level and see how he might thought this would be awesome. Or think back to action and music-hungry young me and think how he might proclaim this is the best movie ever made. You shouldn’t watch it over and over, nor should you watch it by yourself if you can help it. But if you do watch it, it has to be interesting, honest (I mean, how many 80s parodies and homages do we have today with nary the true soul Miami Connection has?), and stimulating on some level for you.

The manner in which I happened to last watch this was another SCS 35mm screening at an early low and anxious point in my life last year, bringing Josh – that Josh again – who had no idea what the movie was about and attending with others who hadn’t seen it before and it was a marvelous moment of good vibrations all around, lifting my spirits as we laughed at the good-natured banality of the whole thing, cheering to see Coral Gables make an appearance as a location, remarking that John looked like a member of the theater audience, and chanting “TAE! KWON! DO!” at the refrain of the song “Against the Ninja”. At the end of the show, Josh couldn’t help remarking that it was awesome and most of the audience loved the experience.

I personally consider it the best experience I’ve had in a movie theater to date. And even if it wasn’t my first viewing of the movie, that’s how Miami Connection will always will stay to me, a movie I watched at the right place and made me happier than I could expect, eager to go fight ninjas and play 80s rock music and not do cocaine.

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*Yes, I have an idea of the trend I want to go, but I haven’t finished (or even started) all 25 reviews so I’m seriously considering The Room and Rock n’ Roll Nightmare for this.


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Set It Off

I’m a redditor and a very constant one. So, upon witnessing the hype for John Wick in the weeks of it coming up, despite not hearing about it until those weeks before the movie opened, I figured I’d see what r/movies was talking about and go ahead and check out what the fuss is all about.

I didn’t watch any trailer beforehand and all I knew about it was that it was being directed and written by a pair of stuntmen who had worked with star Keanu Reeves in the Matrix trilogy and that it followed a man who was one-track minded on revenge after the callous murder of his dog. It pretty much sounded like a Liam Neeson adaptation of what happened to Marcus Luttrell after his Lone Survivor incident. No, seriously, Luttrell’s dog even had the same name of Daisy (except spelled “DASY”).

I had absolutely no expectations for the film except that it might be a pretty good action film.

Well, turns out it WAS a pretty good action film, if it was nothing else.

Well, also turns out it was also SOMETHING ELSE. Not much of something else, but certainly enough to note how it expands beyond being a layman action film at least, even if it inherently borrows itself from the style of another better action film that was released this same year.

Basically the eponymous character (Reeves) has almost immediately after the film has started lost his wife to a terminal disease (Wikipedia states that the wife was played by Bridget Moynahan, but I totally never even bothered recognizing the actress she was on-screen for such a short while). Upon her eve of her death, she arranged for John to receive a puppy to help him move on from her passing and it doesn’t exactly work a miracle on him, but it keeps John level-headed. Suddenly a trio of Russian thugs – led by Iosef (Alfie Allen) – break and enter John Wick’s home with the intention of stealing his car after refusing to sell it to them. In the middle of their assault, they murder Daisy in cold blood, inciting John to begin grieving and arranging a proper burial for his poor dog while Iosef and his pals begin to congratulate themselves for their actions. They make the mistake of bringing the car to a chop shop owned by Aurelio (John Leguizamo) and the shitstorm Aurelio erupts in is the first sign that Iosef just killed the wrong man’s dog.

Immediately after John finishes grieving for Daisy, he starts prepping for a remake of Sterling Archer’s classic film Terms of Enrampagement and is going for much more than Iosef himself. Iosef turns out to be the son of local crimelord Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist), who John Wick used to work for. As an assassin. The kind that killed every single bit of competition Tarasov had to get to the position he is now in. And now the previously retired John is going after the entire Tarasov organization.

These are all facts that are introduced within the first ten minutes of the film setting up the hype for what Wick can do much like reddit had to set up the hype for what John Wick would have been like. Brief scenes of establishing conversation between two people like the gossip that spreads all around close friends, cross-cut with moments of slamming sledgehammers sounding off the beats and momentum of the scene where Viggo explains just what kind of hellfire is coming for him, thanks to the drummer-like editing of Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir, knowing just when to speed up and when to slow it down, setting up the tempo for each scene accordingly.

And then the first gunfight scene begins.

A group of Viggo’s hitmen take a siege to Wick’s home and Wick dispatches them in a teasing little sequence using the closed spaces around Wick and the hit team to provide a snapping, exciting dance of fists, feet, bodies, and bullets in brilliant long-takes, with flashy choreography for a gun battle, aware cinematography to set up the environment, and of course, that tempo-ed editing again this time never missing the beat or what’s up with the shot.

Then the movie gets really exciting.

For one, while Wick goes on his rampage, it turns out he’s sort of one in a great big network of hitmen all around the city with their own construct of communities and rules and ethics. It’s nothing too mythic, it’s just organized, and in fact most of the details of this network are completely turned away from the audience in the most frustratingly abstract way. But it’s there and it’s cool and I really hope we don’t need a sequel that tries to expand on this because it won’t live up to how vast it is in my mind. We’ve already got enough bit part roles in the movie as it is made up of familiar faces (none of them I’ll divulge, just because I had no idea who was in the movie besides Reeves going in and if anybody wants to approach the movie that way, by all means), all probably supposed to do the same thing Reeves does of adding presence to the characters without feeling like a need to really force out some dimension to each character. They’re just co-workers, acquaintances, that Wick knows and that we know too. It’s pretty impressive to show such restraint in filling up a world that the characters live in and then still leaving it with this feeling of being such a real environment.

And then there is the piece de resistance for the action extravaganza… The nightclub setpiece where John goes floor by floor duking it out and shooting it out and going after Iosef with a one track mind from the basements to the balcony and so on. As I mentioned, directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski have been stuntmen. So they know exactly how to make stunts and choreography get done as stuntmen, but I did not at all expect them to be able to capture such an ambitious and fluid setpiece so fantastically. The editing punching in and out moment after moment while the annoying techno music just keeps pumping up mechanically to every shot fired, every hit John takes and dishes, and the cinematography just forcing involvement for the audience every single step that John takes into the hot blues and reds that surround these fighters (the cinematographer Jonathan Sela is quite the revelation in the whole movie – the previous sledgehammer hype up I mentioned has such a vast contrast between the cool steel grays of John’s basement and the warm browns of Viggo’s penthouse). It was so boisterously climactic that I expected the movie to be taking place entirely during this shootout.

I won’t go explicitly into the movie’s content any further, but it doesn’t. It avoids that. Which is a shame because from there on forth the movie feels like it has already shot its load and the rest of the film still has some impressive action setpieces and still feels very alive as a world, but it never lives up to its first half. We still have enough story to carry us on, though, and once a movie like John Wick has given us enough momentum to make us want to keep digging into it, it barely has to do anything more than just tell a half-decent story by Derek Kolstad and have the acting done well enough without hamming itself up – which is a mile of a good thing for Nyqvist and Reeves to do, since they are both actors I am hardly ever impressed by.

But what is my favorite thing about John Wick beyond all these other things I love it for: It is pretty much among the cleanest action movie I have seen in a long time, even more than The Raid 2 which is certainly the best action movie of the year so far. See, the world John lives in is certainly depressing and the movie does enough to express that depression in its visual language, a nihilistic fadedness that I feel is almost certainly done in post-production rather than filtering. But it’s not grungy or gritty… it’s very lavish, it’s almost looking like luxury and would trick you into feeling that if Reeves wasn’t just always so sobering, so visually lost in his role as a human being. It would be a James Bond film if Reeves didn’t give John Wick the character it has as a film (and I would never say Keanu Reeves gives a movie something if he didn’t). It’s not brutal or banging, but it’s still very very intense as an action film. It’s sleek. But it’s still affrontive.

And there’s something especially psychologically off about that sleekness. Like everything is as it should be exactly, except all the violence proves that to be wrong and Wick is still missing a wife and a puppy. But by god, is it all very affrontively elegant in the end.

I’m very very envious. I haven’t seen a film capable of holding all of these dissonant parts together since Rian Johnson’s Brick but John Wick pretty much is guilty as charged of pulling this. Leitch and Stahelski pull it off and tap into a storytelling style of visual psychology without even acknowledging it and utilize it in a genre that is usually just dismissed as bargain bin cheap thrills. Holy shit, John Wick is not even close to that way at all and I’m glad for it and I suggest anybody who likes comic books should watch it, because John Wick feels like one giant limited series from Vertigo Comics. Like 100 Bullets.

Wow, I should go to movies having absolutely no idea what they are about more often.