Kite

starstarstarstarhalf

“Leon, if Matilda had been adopted by Stansfield, instead of Leon.”

Concerns about some content here means Kite has had a tortuous release in the West. First time out, in 1998, it was shorn basically of all explicit sexual content: given the potentially underage nature of the animated heroine, Media Blasters didn’t want to be hit with a kiddie porn charge – laughable though that may seem for a “cartoon”! – and played it very safe. Subsequent releases over the next six years restored first much, in the “Director’s Cut”, then all (“Special Edition”) the footage, but the OAV* might just work better without the sex. It’s hardly as if I finished it and thought, “Y’know, what this really needs is some sequences of the heroine getting molested.”

Because the story is interesting enough on its own. Sawa is a teenage assassin, basically mind-controlled by her foster father, Akai: he’s a cop who uses her to mete out vigilante justice to paedophiles, etc. [This is ironic given their relationship, the nature of which even the edited version makes fairly clear.] She meets a young man, Oburi, in much the same situation, and their growing relationship threatens to disrupt the status quo of everyday slaughter. And, “slaughter” is the word, since Sawa’s weapon of choice is bullets that first penetrate the victim, then explode. Cue more irony: in America, even animated teenage sexuality is entirely verboten, but teenage, paint-the-walls-blood-red carnage? Bring it on.

The action is certainly intense, well-animated and directed, though perhaps excessive. Even after falling from a building, through the road, down to the subway – then being blown up, flying back into the air and blasted through an apartment window, some BandAids are apparently all the medical attention Sawa requires. This conflicted badly with the gritty realism of the story, and I also hated the doodling sax soundtrack, which sounded like something rejected by Abel Ferrara for Driller Killer. Otherwise, though, it’s generally impressive and stylish, with a downbeat approach that is refreshing, as well as some spectacularly messy violence.

* = Original Animation Video, a common “straight to video” anime format. It’s only 50 minutes, about standard length for such things. A live-action version, directed by Jorge + Javier Aguilera, produced by Rob Cohen & Anant Singh, was announced earlier this year, but no release date has been scheduled. And No Doubt’s video for Ex-Girlfriend borrowed heavily from Kite – the bathroom assassination is re-staged, almost shot-for-shot, as this video shows.

Dir: Yasoumi Umetsu
Star (voice): Kotomi Naruse, Shingo Oyamada, Goro Shibusawa, Tatsuo Matoba

The Doll Squad

starstar

“Less an inspiration for Charlie’s Angels than the early works of Andy Sidaris.”

To describe this as eagerly anticipated would be… well, wholly wrong, actually. I’ll tell you how long the DVD has sat on our shelf: I bought it on honeymoon; we got married in July 2002. Not exactly required viewing, then. And having seen it, I can see why: while not as bad as we feared from the trailer, it’s remarkably dull. Mikels claims the concept was stolen by the creators of Charlie’s Angels, but going by the execution here, the word he’s looking for would appear to be “rescued”, not stolen. Sabrina Kincaid (York) assembles an all-girl team to find and take out the evil mastermind who’s blowing up American rockets. Quite why they must be girls is never quite explained; it’s down to Big Bertha, the government computer that assigns missions, and apparently values fashion sense over ability.

It’s really the middle where this falls apart, among near-endless scenes of the team running around an island in jumpsuits and white, high-heeled boots, getting captured, escaping and running around again. This is, as it sounds, remarkably dull, and outside of Sabrina, no attempt is made to give any of the other members any significant character traits. That’s a shame, especially since you’ve got Tura Satana, one of the most memorable action heroines of all time in Faster Pussycat. Here’s she’s reduced to a pastie-wearing cypher, who provides the film’s entire, insignificant skin quota. If you’re hoping this film makes up for in nudity what it lacks in most other areas, you’ll be disappointed.

There are some minor pleasures to be had: York isn’t bad, and her team has no qualms about dropping someone, then adding a bullet or two for good measure [Though this isn’t necessary when you feed them high-explosive liquor] And the soundtrack is perhaps the best thing about the film, being 91 minutes of Grade-A, seventies cheese. However, on the whole, this is more a chore than a pleasure, and Mikels doesn’t do much here to redeem his name as one of the poorer B-movie directors of the time.

Dir: Ted V. Mikels
Stars: Francine York, Michael Ansara, Sherri Vernon, Tura Satana

Million Dollar Baby

starstarstarstarhalf

“The harder they come, the harder they fall…”

The problem with boxing films is that it’s very hard to avoid the obvious cliches. Kid from the streets, initially seen as hopeless, eventually convinces a trainer to take them on, and struggles towards the goal of a shot at the big time. Million is no different, for the first two-thirds at least. Then, there is a sudden, unexpected swerve – or would have been unexpected, if our son hadn’t ruthlessly spoilered it, by wandering in and telling us of a scene in Scary Movie 4 which spoofed it. Thank you, Robert. :-) This shifts the movie in a radically different direction, though also divorcing it entirely from the action heroine genre and robbing it of at least half a grade, since reviews here center around such aspects.

What helps enormously are the three characters at the core of the film: trainer and gym owner Frankie (Eastwood), ex-fighter and general gym handyman Eddie (Freeman), and the thirty-something hillbilly waitress Maggie (Swank), who comes to the gym to learn the pugilistic arts. All three have their burdens, Frankie in particular, who blames himself for everything bad that happens to anyone he knows. Yet somehow, they fit together like crazy paving and become more whole as a result; it’s fascinating to watch, and much credit is due to all three actors. The fight scenes are well staged too. Swank looks the part – she was The Next Karate Kid, after all – as she makes her way through the ranks, ending up facing champion Billie the Blue Bear (Rijker – on the left in the pic, and in reality, 37-0 as a kickboxer, 17-0 as a boxer), and there’s little glamourous here.

You get some feeling for the appeal of the sport, and the commitment it demands, though the freak nature of the incident which drives the final third seems lazy writing. Despite a weak script, the performances, particularly Eastwood, lift this above and beyond. Recommended if you want a more thoughtful approach, and are prepared for action more to be a catalyst for drama, rather than a purpose in itself.

Dir: Clint Eastwood
Star: Clint Eastwood, Hilary Swank, Morgan Freeman, Lucia Rijker