Martial arts noir...does that sound appealing to you? If the thought of that genre coupling gets you all hot and bothered then you're in the target demographic for The Girl from the Naked Eye. The action scenes take prominence over the noir trappings to yield a film that is entertaining without being completely successful.
Our protagonist is a broke gambler named Jake (Jason Yee). In order to pay off his debts, he works for a sleazy club owner named Simon (Ron Yuan) who runs an escort business on the side. Jake drives Simon's girls from client to client and steps in as a bruiser when things don't go as planned. It's a simple enough job that gets complicated when Jake meets Simon's newest girl, Sandy (Samantha Streets). He has his guard up and she has secrets of her own but over time they develop a friendship. Unfortunately before their relationship can blossom into something more, Sandy is murdered (not a spoiler since the film opens with Jake cradling her dead body). Now Jake is on the warpath, punching and kicking his way through every lowlife in town, in a bid to uncover her killer.
I have to be honest. I was a little worried going into this one. The cover sports the film's name in what I can only describe as Sin City font (go look it up, I'll wait). The plot description, in broad strokes, seems reminiscent of Marv's tale in that film. Even the first establishing shot looks stylized in a way that wouldn't be out of place in, you guessed it, Sin City. Although I love Sin City to bits, I simply was not in the mood for a low-budget rehash. Thankfully, director David Ren (who co-wrote this with Larry Madill and star Jason Yee) quickly pushes forward with an aesthetic that is entirely his own.
The film's East-meets-West approach is an excellent distinguishing factor that feels organic to the city and characters on display. This is especially apparent in the action that blends gunplay and martial arts with a heavy emphasis on the latter. Jason Yee has real credentials in the world of competitive San-Shou kick-boxing which he puts to very good use here. An early setpiece has him beating Sandy's client list out of Simon before leading Simon's men on a chase that spans hallways, staircases and elevators. The sequence is energetic and declares Ren's intent early on. This is meant to be a scrappy little action film and not some grand crime drama.
All the action wouldn't be worth much if Jake didn't have a genuine cause to fight for. Samantha Streets provides the film with a core of innocence and Jake with motivation. She gives Sandy a touch of sweetness and naiveté without falling into the cliché of the hooker with a heart of gold. Through a series of flashbacks interspersed throughout the film, we come to understand how her relationship with Jake grew into something strangely hopeful. Even Yee feels more relaxed in his scenes with Streets, bolstering their chemistry in the process. Given just how good Streets is in the film, it's unfortunate that Sasha Grey and Dominique Swain snatch the DVD cover away from her. Grey puts in a forgettable cameo and Swain charms with her few short scenes but Streets definitely deserves more credit.
Of the guys, Ron Yuan steals every scene with his portrayal of Simon. Yuan's delivery injects humor into even the meanest things he says (sample putdown: "Suck in your stomach. You look like a f*cking hippo.") He successfully occupies that grey zone where you know he's up to no good but sincerely hope that he isn't as bad as you think he might be. Filling out the other half of the villain quota is Gary Stretch as a corrupt cop on Simon's payroll. Stretch aims for sinister and largely succeeds even though he doesn't have a ton to do.
I won't find fault with the film for not being more ambitious because it's just not that kind of film. Even taken on its own terms though, there are a few missteps that lessen the film's impact. Let's start with Yee himself. There is no doubt that he has the physical chops to handle the fight scenes. Unfortunately, there are long stretches of the film where he isn't beating up goons. At those times, he just seems a little bored. This carries over to his noir-ish narration which comes across as flat and sleepy rather than gritty or tough.
The other issue goes back to the long action-free stretches I mentioned. Perhaps action-free isn't entirely accurate but I can safely say that the midsection of the film doesn't feature anything as memorable as the setpieces that bookend the whole shebang. I've already mentioned the early chase scene. The other highlight is the climax that has Yee face off against Lateef Crowder before engaging in a hallway fight that is clearly inspired by the hammer fight in Oldboy (if you haven't seen it, please correct this oversight immediately). Between these two high points, the action is sparse and as a result the pacing occasionally falters. Nitpicks aside, the action sequences are still the best part of the film. I just wish there were more of them.