Sonny Chiba is a certified bad ass. You can see it everywhere - in his look, in his mannerisms, in his stellar martial artistry, in the very essence of his bravado being. Just one glance from this Japanese juggernaut and your blood turns to ice and your shorthairs shrivel and die. This dude means business and he will bust you up if you try and stop him. From his 1961 film debut in Invasion of the Neptune Men to his breakout hits in the 1970s, he stands as an example of machismo and magnetism fused into a regimented disciple of kung fu. For many moviegoers, their first experience with the actor was as a throwaway reference. Unless they were deep into Eastern action films, it was Clarence Worley's outright adoration of Chiba in True Romance that became a geek squad call to arms. While still a part of the subculture, he's a glorified God to those who know his work and his well worn persona. Now, BCI Eclipse offers up a double dose of the action movie icon as part of its Welcome to the Grindhouse Double Feature DVD series (wonder where we've seen that title before...), and true to the man of the hour, this presentation packs one Heck of a wicked wallop.
The Bodyguard, 1973 (Score: ***1/2 out of *****)
After her mafia lover is killed in America, an affluent Japanese woman returns to her native land, looking for help. As luck would have it, international super agent Chiba is back as well, vowing to wipe out all drugs on the island. He offers his services as a bodyguard in order to gain important inside information. It's not long before Chiba and his new employer are put to the test. Criminals are constantly trying to kill this woman, and our hero is anxious to know why. Turns out, she's in with the smugglers, who use dead soldiers being shipped home from the local US military base as a means of hiding the heroin. Naturally, the mob, the triads, and the local street hoods (including a trio of tripwire flesh peddlers) all want the contraband. With it, they can control the traffic and bankroll millions. It's up to The Bodyguard to stop them.
Sister Street Fighter, 1974 (Score: ****1/2 out of *****)
When her brother is kidnapped by drug dealers, Tina Long vows to find him. Unfortunately, she is dealing with one of the most notorious mobsters in all of Japan. This man is so insane, he collects various skilled assassins and houses them on his grounds like pets. Hoping for help, Tina goes to her brother's karate school. There, she is provided with a female assistant, and a lone wolf teacher named Sonny Kawasaka (Sonny Chiba). After uncovering the smuggling scheme - the heroin is imparted into wigs before being shipped overseas - she decides to take on the syndicate on its home turf. Battling a number of skilled killers, our heroine must hurry before her sibling is purposefully poisoned with narcotics. Of course she will get help from her aforementioned pals, but in truth, it's up to Sister Street Fighter to destroy evil and save the day.
Forget all the grindhouse glorification. Ignore all the "in theater experience" horse hokey posing as bonus content. Crappy trailers and nostalgic intermission ads are really not that important here. No, what is significant is that this delightful double feature is one of the best collections of Eastern exploitation ever offered to a schlock loving demo. It's so sensational and skuzzy that you want to hunt down the DVD distributors over at BCI Eclipse and French Kiss the holy Hell out of them. Okay, so the movies are in less than pristine shape - at least they're uncut and loaded with sleaze. Granted, there are no original language tracks available, just poorly dubbed English (with occasional Japanese subtitles peeking out of the corners), but part of the fun to be found is hearing American actors wrestle with ridiculous, retarded line readings. No, what is of utmost important here is Sonny Chiba, and the career he formed out of playing iconic men of stealth and steel. This is testosterone fueled fabulousness, baby, with even some slick chick weed whacking incorporated for forward thinking gender equality. From the opening frames of the first film, when Chiba's creed is offered (which looks and sounds suspiciously like Jules Winnfield's speech from Pulp Fiction), to the closing minutes of Sister Street Fighter, where a blood splattered babe contemplates all the corpses she's left in her wake, we are in for three hours of knock down, drag out kung fu hustling. And it's going to be nothing short of a stone cold groove.
Far be it for this critic to ruin your revelry over these amazing movies. Let's just say that everything you've heard about Chiba, the '70s drive-in experience, and the overriding sordidness of these masterful motion pictures is all 100% true. The Bodyguard, for example, wants to get by on its star's significant glower power and the outrageous antics of the various criminal organizations he must face. While the mafia are portrayed as minor leaguers, it's the trio of prostitute peddlers that really makes an impact. One is a whiny wuss who seems predestined too get his huevos handed to him on a regular basis. The other is his overly protective big brother. The third, more or less the muscle of the outfit, does most of his business with the sharp end of a hand axe. Whether it's digging into a decapitated boar's head for some succulent cheek meat (which he manages to get all over his portly, shirtless frame) or fighting off competing clans and unhappy hookers, he's all hatchet. Chiba is challenged by these clueless skin merchants on several occasions, and they always wind up wounded, and worked up for more. It's part and parcel of how The Bodyguard functions. We don't care about the storyline, or the irritating mistress how hires our hero only to endanger his life over and over again. No, what we want to see is some major league hinder wailing, and in this capacity, the movie more than delivers. It's a slow burn simmer of staged fisticuffs and amorous rebuffs. From the frequent nudity to the nonstop bloodletting this is what the grindhouse tag was all about.
And believe it or not, Sister Street Fighter is even better. Toss out the T&A, and add in more ridiculous gore, and you've got an idea of how gratuitously great this film is. Chiba is only in three scenes (he's more of a cameo presence than an active participant in the story), but he makes his time onscreen worthwhile. During the memorable showdown between the bad guy and his posse of paid killers, our champion literally pulls the guts out of one man, claret spraying like a fountain as organs and offal fall to the ground. Not to be outdone, true title star Etsuko Shihomi, takes on another bad guy, and when they've finished scuffling, our hood is hurt and hobbling down the stairs...with his head turned completely around backwards. WEEE! Martial arts movies don't get any more over the top than this one. When our villain hires Hammerhead and his gang, the murderer's minions are dressed like members of the rock band The Residents, woven baskets acting as headgear and masks for their faces. Even better, during an opening altercation, the film freeze frames to introduce our collection of killers, each one given a spiffy name and a descriptive kung-fu technique. This is the kind of craziness that has our heroine demonstrating her skills by stabbing flies with toothpicks (really) and resolving every expositional issue with expertly choreographed smackdowns (there's more fighting here than in 10 standard chop socky efforts). Even with the limited amount of Chiba, Sister Street Fighter is a crack smoking classic.
As stated before, this is a real 'good news/bad news' sort of release. On the plus side, BCI Eclipse has promised that these are original, uncut versions of these films, and the sensational amount of arterial spray and nude naughty bits seem to support such a proposition. The movies are also offered in anamorphic widescreen transfers, a 2.35:1 aspect ratio delivering a definite theatrical experience. On the downside, there are print and age issues everywhere, including the aforementioned Japanese subtitles. In fact, we may have a case of image inflating and side cropping to keep said translations out of the frame. Without the originals, it's almost impossible to tell. Still, the pictures are colorful and detailed, and the minor defects tend to add to the overall retro feel. While not perfect, they're pretty damn good.
Sadly, all sound presented here is Dolby Digital Mono - and it's offered in an English only dub. Again, it plays into the nostalgic atmosphere of this presentation, but the least one could ask for is the original Japanese language tracks. It would be very interesting to hear Chiba's real voice, and to experience the other actors as they perform in their native tongue. The aural aspects are still clear and easily understandable, but without the original mixes, the movies appear to be missing something.
Technically, there are none. What we get instead is something called "The Grindhouse Experience". Choosing this menu option results in both movies being played with a collection of trailers, title cards, intermission animation, and other classic Cineplex staples inserted at the beginning and middle. In fact, anyone who was lucky enough to see this spring's heartfelt homage by Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino will recognize most of this cinematic archeology. It's entertaining - especially the horrendous previews offered - but it's not really a solid supplement. Truthfully, the focus should have been on Chiba and other martial arts movies. That would have at least complemented the content present.
Okay, okay, enough critical clamor. If this review hasn't gotten you up out of your chair and headed to your local B&M for a double dose of choice Chiba, this writer has failed in his mission. Without a doubt, this is one of the best releases of 2007, a reminder that movies can be fun, foul, freakish, and frisky all at the same time. Even without the purists prerequisite technical specs, and a lack of real substantive bonus features, this DVD demands a rating of Highly Recommended. In fact, one can hope that a completist company like Dragon Dynasty gets a hold of Sister Street Fighter, and tricks it out with all manner of meaningful extras. Until then, this crackerjack double feature will have to suffice. If you don't know Chiba - and you should, you dolt - this is a great place to start. If you are already familiar with the Asian actor and his 'squint like Clint" mannerism, you should already own practically unplayable VHS versions of these titles. Now is your chance to upgrade. In either case, you'll be satisfied cinephiles when all is said and done. Chiba is indeed a bona fide bad ass. The Bodyguard and Sister Street Fighter are all the proof you need.
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