BCI's ever-growing "Welcome to the Grindhouse" line of double feature DVDs continues with a disc featuring "Sonny Chiba's Dragon Princess" and "Karate Warriors," which makes a perfect companion to their "The Bodyguard"/"Sister Street Fighter" two-fer under the same banner.
"Sonny Chiba's Dragon Princess" (1981)
Who can blame the American distributors for casually adding Chiba's name to the title (originally just "Dragon Princess")? Audiences now know exactly what they're going to get: serious, furious action, Chiba-style. Oh, but even without the title change, "Dragon Princess" would still be one hell of a ride, full of blood and guts and mighty fine fight sequences.
Indeed, right from the start, we're treated to enough eye-gouging to last us for a month, including a shot of Chiba running around with one eye dangling from its socket, and that's just the start of the fun. Sonny's daughter, Yumi, witnesses the ambush that leaves her father crippled and one-eyed. Forced out of Japan, they wind up in New York, where pops teaches the girl how to kick all assortment of asses. Years later, grown-up Yumi (Etsuko Shihomi) returns to Tokyo to seek revenge.
That's all the depth one will find in "Dragon Princess," but that's all the depth one needs. This is the sort of gloriously excessive actionfest Sonny Chiba does best (even if the film's detractors will be quick to note that Chiba exits the film by the end of the first act), and fans of this sort of high-octanearama (one is forced to create new words for movies like this) will be consistently pleased - especially those accustomed to seeing flicks like this in shoddy pan-and-scan prints. Here, the widescreen action shines, nicely framing all of the many, many, many fight scenes on hand. Shihomi, a frequent Chiba co-star, makes for a fine heroine, while the villains are all deliciously over-the-top. A wild time all around.
"Karate Warriors" (1976)
A cheap but effective 70s updating of "Yojimbo," "Karate Warriors" is a brutal, ugly film. Even the hero is morally repugnant, roughing up women with disturbing casualness. But in its own dingy way, it works, cementing the film as a harsh exploitation actioner.
Chiba stars as a drifter (apparently named "Chico" in the Americanized dub, although LoveHKFilm.com guesses it might be "Chieko") who drifts his way right into the middle of a turf war between two mobs, both of which are on the hunt for a missing supply of heroin. Along the way, there are whores, strippers, and plenty of sword-induced bloodshed, not to mention a subplot that has Chico rescuing and befriending a little boy, whom he finally reunites with an anxious mother in what's supposed to be a tear-jerking dramatic moment.
In other words, it's a little of everything. The tenderness of the Chico-and-Kid scenes clash wildly with the ugliness of the sleazier sex-and-violence bits, but as far as this sort of grindhouse epic goes, it works, offering up a steady supply of the bizarrely entertaining. Chiba remains cool as always, while once again, everything around him is so gloriously overstated that the film becomes an explosion of kitschy thrills.
Note: "Karate Warriors" is often incorrectly labeled as an entry in Chiba's "Street Fighter" series; it is in reality a standalone adventure, not connected in any way to that series, other than the presence of its star.
As with BCI's other "Welcome to the Grindhouse" releases, this double feature (which contains both films on one single-sided disc) allows you to watch either film on its own or both as part of "The Grindhouse Experience." Such a thing is not as elaborate as one may expect (and certainly not as packed as several similar discs, especially those replicating the drive-in experience): before each feature, we get a couple of action-heavy trailers, plus the mandatory "prevues of coming attractions" and "our feature presentation" animations. During intermission, we also get a friendly reminder to clean up after ourselves. Most of the clips seen here are from the early 80s, offering a crisper, video-era look to the graphics.
It all blends nicely together, although both movies are preceded by newly-created Hypercube Media and Films Around the World logos, which take us out of the past for a few seconds, but hey, we can live with it.
Video & Audio
Fans lamenting their pan-and-scan budget discs will rejoice to see anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) transfers offered for both films. Neither film looks spectacular, and both films come with a wide variety of print damage. ("Karate Warriors" seems especially faded at the very top and bottom of the frame - the portion of the image that probably would have bled over on a movie screen.) Some of this is a fault of the movie itself (dig that mismatching grainy stock footage!), some is a fault of lousy prints. But that's part of BCI's intended grindhouse charm, and considering there are no digital artifacts getting in the way of all that washed-out graininess, we give it a pass.
The same pass is granted the films' English dubs. The original Japanese soundtracks are absent here, replaced by the same crummy mono dubs heard years ago. They sound workable enough. No subtitles are provided. (Note: aside from the dubbing, these appear to be the original, uncut versions of both films.)
None outside the "Grindhouse Experience," which is its own bonus feature. In addition to the "coming attractions" animations, you get trailers for "The Bodyguard" (tagline: Viva Chiba!), the fantasy epic "Legend of Eight Samurai," the 80s-tastic "9 Deaths of the Ninja," and, of course, "Sister Street Fighter." The "Bodyguard" preview and "Our Feature Presentation" animation are presented in anamorphic widescreen; the rest are in either flat letterbox or full frame.
While original audio and/or cleaner prints would've been nice, fans of such titles will play along with the "grindhouse" theme enough to enjoy this presentation as-is. The movies - especially "Dragon Princess" - are precisely the sort of hard-hitting fun Chiba fans expect. Recommended to action freaks looking for something to help pass the time on a lazy weekend.