Bare Knuckles

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“Disappointing where it matters, surprisingly good where it doesn’t.”

Samantha Rogers (Roxborough) works in a bar, where her no-nonsense approach draws the attention of somewhat shady fight agent Sonny Cool (Kove), who convinces her to try her hand in the world of unsanctioned women’s MMA. While the money’s good, a brutal beating at the hands of current champion Mona (Bridgett Riley) convinces Rogers to give up. However, Cool comes knocking on her door with news of a 16-woman contest with a six-figure, winner take all payout, that would set single-mom Rogers and her disabled daughter (Roxborough’s real daughter) up for life. The bad news is in two parts: it’s no-holds barred, and Mona will also be in the field, along with thoroughly shady agent Nedish (Mandylor), for whom Cool has no affection.

Yeah, stop me if you’ve heard that plotline before. This would be tolerable – heck, JCVD pretty much made a career out of it – if the action was anything to write home about, but it occupies an uneasy ground between being realistic and choreographed, which satisfies as neither. This results in the viewer watching a supposed MMA fight, in which the combatants do front-flips, splits and other moves that you just do not see inside the octagon. Similarly, these are supposedly the baddest women on the planet…and they all look like supermodels? I’m also forced to wonder how an event, staged in front of, ooh, perhaps dozens of people, can fund a purse of half a million dollars. If that truly were the case, I’d have sold this site to News Corp, and be typing this from a beach somewhere in the South Pacific.

Surprisingly, the best things about this are the performances. Roxborough is convincing, Kove unexpectedly likeable, Mandylor appropriately sleazy and Mulkey, as Al the trainer, channels Michael Madsen to good effect. I imagine Etebari probably met Roxborough on the set of Witchblade, where he played Ian Nottingham, and she doubled for Yancy Butler. [I note, with amusement, that a scene with Oscar-winner Sir Anthony Hopkins, who happened to be on location one day, ended up on the cutting-room floor!] Perhaps the standout was Spice Williams-Crosby as a veteran fighter, who advises Samantha – she has been doing stunt-work for over a quarter of a century now, and brings that experience and intensity to her supporting role. However, on balance, I’d rather have had action that worked and acting that didn’t; the end result is largely forgettable and fails to deliver as promised.

Dir: Eric Etebari
Star: Jeanette Roxborough, Martin Kove, Louis Mandylor, Chris Mulkey

War Cat

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“Time to put this cat out, permanently. “

There aren’t many times I agree with censorship, but the British Board of Film Classification rejected this movie entirely when it was submitted in 1987. I’d like to thank them for saving the public from this appalling piece of dreck for 25 years, even if I think they were probably confusing it with Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45, which was also known as Angel of Vengeance in the UK. I can’t believe they actually watched this, as it’s so entirely harmless, the only threat it could have posed to the public at large would have been from the wholesale gnawing off of limbs, by viewers desperate to escape the ordeal.

I’ve seen a few Mikels movies now, in and out of our genre here: none have been great, few have even reached acceptable, but this was truly the bottom of the cinematic barrel. In Mikels’ defense, it was a troubled production, to say the least, with original director Ray Dennis Steckler being fired two days into shooting. Producer Jeff Hogue “came up with new ideas almost every day,” according to Mikels, and the cast included Poynter, who had been a cocktail waitress at a Las Vegas casino wuth no acting experience at all. It’s remarkable anything ended up getting released at all.

The story, such as it is by the time all this was endured, focuses on a militia group out in the desert, under Major Hargrove (O’Hara), and to a significantly lesser degree, on Tina Davenport (Poynter), who is writing a book on her deceased father, who just happened to be a soldier. This attracts the attention of some of the more brutish members of Hargrove’s survivalists, who end up kidnapping Tina and taking her out to the camp. Hargrove is annoyed by this, having recently spent a significant chunk of the running-time killing a biker gang, but agrees to Tina’s proposal to give her a chance. Rather than killing her outright, he lets her go, to provide a training exercise for his men, by hunting her down. Of course, her military background means they’re in for a nasty surprise.

It’s nowhere near as interesting at that may sound, not least because the hunt only takes place in the last 30 minutes or less of the movie, and is so badly put-together and executed as to suck any life out of the concept. Up until then, you’ve got to endure an endless stream of scenes that redefine “turgid,” and don’t develop storyline or character. Not even entertainingly bad, just incredibly boring: avoid, at all costs.

Dir: Ted V. Mikels
Star: David O’Hara, Jannina Poynter, Macka Foley, Carl Irwin
a.k.a. Angel of Vengeance

The Yakuza Wives

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“Could comfortably kick the asses of The Mob Wives.”

Perhaps a better title, however, would be Yakuza Sister, since this is a tale of two siblings. Tamaki (Iwashita) is an actual mid-level Yakuza wife, who is running their branch of the gang in the jailed absence of her husband, and doing quite well at it, enhancing its size and reputation. She is largely estranged from both her sister Makoto (Kitase) and their father – she’s a bartender, he works in his machine shop, but it’s clear from the get-go that his time is limited [this isn’t much of a spoiler when you see him coughing his lungs out while simultaneously chain-smoking]. Two things upset their semi-orderly lives. The overall head of Tamaki’s clan dies, opening up a power vacuum which sets off a struggle between rival factions, and Tamaki attempts to arrange a ‘suitable’ marriage for her sister. Makoto rebels, taking up instead with Kiyoshi Sugita (Sera) – which is unfortunate, because he’s a loyal member of the faction now battling Tamaki’s group for control.

The first in a long-running series of films, both direct sequels and knock-offs of the basic concept, this is somewhere between The Godfather and a soap-opera. Among the things I apparently learned from this were, that in Japan, organized crime syndicates have press-conferences to detail leadership changes, and that the best way to get a Japanese women to marry you, is to rape her. Who knew? [Legal note: GirlsWithGuns.org does not make any claims regarding the reliability of this information, and accepts no responsibility for any damages, prosecutions or severed digits resulting from acting on it.] It’s a bit of an uncomfortable mix, but the steely-gaze of Iwashita and her character’s single-minded dedication to the cause is impeccable: she’s a better female character than anyone in Coppola’s trilogy.

Things head towards their expected tragic outcome, but there are a few twists along the way, as well as an interesting cat-fight between the two sisters, when Makoto opts for her husband over her family. About five minutes in duration, there’s only about three cuts as they brawl their way around the apartment, in and out of the closet, before collapsing, exhausted. If not exactly a martial-arts epic, it’s an interesting stylistic choice, quite unlike anything else I’ve seen, and is presented for your viewing below. If a little low on the action quotient outside of this, it’s a solid piece of drama that should keep the spectator interested.

The player will show in this paragraph

Chikara: Joshimania

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“They Came From Japan…”

If I’d heard about this event in advance – rather than the first I saw of it being a review of the opening night – a road-trip to the East coast might have been in order. For this would have been a chance to see some of the giants of Japanese women’s wrestling – known as “joshi” – on a rare trip to the United States for three shows on successive nights. That includes Toyota who, in her mid-90s heyday, was perhaps the best female wrestler ever, and was among the very best, of either gender, at the time: from 1992-95, she wrestled in no less than ten bouts rated as five-star by the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, two of which were named the world-wide Match of the Year. Fifteen years later, I was curious to see if she and other icons like Kong could still bring it, and also to check out Sara Del Rey. A few years ago, Del Rey had been a regular part of IZW, the local promotion we helped at, and her reputation now had her among the best indie workers in the US.

Some general thoughts before we get into each event. If you’re used to the WWE and their “divas”, these events would be a startling change, on a whole variety of levels. Most obviously: the matches aren’t three minute bathroom breaks. For instance, on the debut show, all the women’s matches ran for at least ten minutes, with Toyota vs. Toshie Uematsu running just short of twenty. And, just as important, the skills on view are undeniable, both technically and from the ‘in-ring story telling’ point of view – which is basically an ignored aspect in WWE, where it’s get in, string a few spots together, pin-fall and get out. Here, there’s a palpable sense of effort going in to building a character as heel or face, especially necessary in a one-off set of shows like this, where there’s no back story on which the crowd or wrestling can rely to create atmosphere.

As with just about all wrestling shows, not all matches are equally good, or equally relevant. and I’ll generally be concentrating on the the main bouts more than the undercards – though there were still some moments worth mentioning from the latter. The three nights of Joshimania also included some men’s bouts: Chikara is mostly a male promotion, with even Del Rey fighting against men. I acknowledge the existence of these matches here, and will not cover these again, though they were generally entertaining.

Night 1: December 2, ECW Arena, Philadelphia. A good example of those “mentionable moment” came in the opening contest, an inter-gender match where the joshi trio of Kaori Yoneyama, Tsubasa Kuragaki & Hanako Nakamori beat the Chikara heel team of Archibald Peck and Los Ice Creams. This ended with the submission move shown below on the left, in which Kuragaki lifted two opponents across her shoulders. It was the move of the night, amazing especially if you consider that most divas – with the honorable exceptions of Beth Phoenix and Kharma (who was a tag partner of Aja Kong in Japan in the mid-2000’s) – would crack in a stiff breeze. That was the highlight of the undercard, with the GAMI vs. Sawako Shimono bout rather slow and uninteresting, coming across as too obviously staged.

Things perked up with Cherry & Ayako Hamada vs. Mayumi Ozaki & Mio Shirai, the latter playing the cheating heels to impeccable effect, and this really showcased the character aspect of pro wrestling. In particular, the veteran Ozaki had a grudge against the “rookie” Cherry, and concentrated on bullying her every chance she could get, legally or otherwise. It’s the first time I’d seen Shirai, and she made a great impression too, in what was probably the most entertaining bout of the opening evening. Manami Toyota is now into her forties, and has probably lost a step or two from her peak, but is still an unrivalled combination of high-flier and technical expertise – her misile drop-kicks remain a thing of wonder. Her opponent was Toshie Uematsu, another veteran, albeit one three years younger than Toyota. This was a solid enough match, between a pair of veterans who are more than familiar with each other, but the lack of an obvious heel/face may have robbed this of some drama.

No such problem with the final bout: it was clear who was who, from the moment Kong spurned Del Rey’s offer of a handshake pre-bout, leading the US wrestler to yell “Too good to shake my hand, Aja?” at her opponent. Del Rey threw everything she at at Kong right from the start, but Kong wouldn’t go down – for instance, after being hit by Del Rey’s headbutts, she went over and started headbutting the corner turnbuckle. What this did was set up the later parts, when Del Rey’s offense did have an impact, such as the massive suplex dropping Kong on her back. Del Rey took her share of punishment, including a metal can to the head after the a ref bump took the official out. The finish came after Kong missed her finisher, the uraken or spinning back fist; Del Rey took advantage to roll Kong up for the pin, ending the first night’s events.

Night 2: December 4, Everett Rec Center, Boston. Okay, a little outside Boston, technically, but let’s not split suburbs. Many of the same competitors from last night were seen again, with the matches swapped around to provide a different set of contests. The crowd looked a bit smaller than Night 1, but were probably a little bit more into things – it’s amusing to be reminded of how wrestling fans anywhere (be it Massachusetts or Arizona), tend to react the same way. More than once, I thought, “Is that Chikara’s equivalent of [insert AZ wrestling fan’s name]?” Wherever you go, there you are. Which has probably just made this the only review of Joshimania to quote Confucius. Or Buckaroo Banzai, if you prefer.

Quickly to go through the undercard, GAMI still continues to underwhelm; watching her and her opponents dawdle their way across the ring at leisurely paces, was like watching furniture being rearranged. However, Kaori Yoneyama did prove impressive in her match against Hanako Nakamori. That was especially so, given her small stature – she’s only 4’11” – but that did not reduce her impact in the match one bit. It was mentioned several times that Yoneyama was going to retire shortly, but it seems this tour helped lead to a change of heart, with Yoneyama announcing, literally during her retirement ceremony, that she’d be carrying on. Glad to hear that, since I enjoyed her matches: the promoters of that final event were none too happy, and had to offer refunds to those who’d attended!

Things literally kicked into high-gear with Mayumi Ozaki vs. Mio Shirai – they’d been losing tag partners last night, and based on this one, each blamed the other, because this was phenomenally stiff. Shirai’s kicks and Ozaki’s punches were the stuff of nightmares: the latter won out in the end, and even Chris nodded approvingly, saying “This is real women’s wrestling.” Hard to argue with that. Sara Del Rey took on Tsubasa Kuragaki in the next match, which for my money just took Bout of the Night honours, though it was hard to separate the singles matches in terms of quality. This was a blitzkrieg of perpetual near-falls, and you had the sense the match could end at any time, in either direction, which made for engrossing viewing. An amazing strength move by Del Rey, suplexing her opponent, out of the Royal Butterfly submission hold [with both her opponent’s feet already off the floor], proved decisive.

Manami Toyota was in action next, but as part of an 8-man tag match – or, rather, a 6-man 2-woman match. Listing the participants would use up all my space, so I’ll just say it was as packed with action as you’d expect from such a crowded ring, though I’d rather have seen a ring goddess like Toyota as more than 1/4 of one side, even if she was certainly involved more than one-quarter of the time. I was a little surprised, given their lengthy track record, we didn’t see the “obvious” match of Toyota vs. Kong, one-on-one, in this series. Instead, the main event here was Kong vs. Ayako Hamada, with Hamada giving away about 80 lbs or so. Can’t say I felt the outcome here was ever in doubt, but credit Hamada for withstanding much punishment, e.g. Kong stomping on her body, before catching an uraken. Goodnight, Vienna: though even Kong – ever the monster heel – acknowledged Hamada’s effort after the bout, a nice touch.

Night 3: December 5, Highline Ballroom, Manhattan One of the problems with one-off shows like this is there’s no possible story arc; a key aspect of pro wrestling is threads that run over multiple consecutive events, typically building to a big finish in some way. With a fresh audience each night, that’s not possible here, but what is lacking there is largely made up for in personality and ongoing character. By the time I got to the third show, I knew that Mayumi Ozaki would cheat like a three-card hustler, Aja Kong would no-sell just about every bit of offense thrown at her, and Sara Del Rey would stand her ground against the best joshi could throw at her. This predictability might seem a deficiency, but it’s what we want. This is soap opera with violence, and is designed to give viewers what they want, not confound expectations. This night’s showed delivered impeccably.

On the undercard, I should mention Saturyne, who was one half of an impromptu tag-team taking on Los Ice Creams, and was more or less an unknown. She made a good impression, taking a good deal of punishment but also showcasing some spectacular high-flying moves. One to watch. This was followed by GAMI vs. Portia Perez, and while I was unimpressed with the former in the other two nights, this was her best match of the weekend, with some great strength moves, including holding a vertical suplex for a full 20 seconds. The final match of the half saw Toshie Uematsu fit in nicely with the demonic Batari trio, and take on Cherry and the Colony (all three Ant fighters) in an eight-person bout that was no less frantic than the one the previous night.

It was certainly warmly appreciated by the audience, and I they were the “extra man” which helped make this night’s show the best one. They seemed really into almost every bout, and their reaction to the moves certainly enhanced their impact. It was a “cosy” venue, with the fans almost on the edge of the ring, and this made for a great atmosphere, despite the early 4pm start. After intermission, they really started to get into things with the Ozaki vs. Yoneyama match – as noted above, this delivered exactly what you’d expect, with the OZ twisting all the rules and Yoneyama [coming to the ring in s head-dress, for some reason…] taking all the punishment and bouncing back like a Duracell bunny made of latex. I think it was this bout which included a Human Centipede reference from the commentator. Not something you get on WWE.

Manami Toyota, Sawako Shimono & Hanako Nakamori vs. Aja Kong, Tsubasa Kuragaki & Mio Shirai. Frak me, this was good. If you buy only one DVD, Show #3 would be it, and if you watch only one match on one DVD, it’s this one. It ran for twenty-eight minutes, fifty-seven second. Let me repeat that. No, better yet, merely appreciate it was about ten times as long as your average Divas contest, and that’d include the WWE introductions. And you know another thing? There wasn’t a dull moment. Little wonder the crowd were chanting “This is awesome!” while the bout was still in progress. I was expecting this mostly to focus on Kong and Toyota, but it was a real barn-burner, with all six women both taking and delivering an impeccable showcase for women’s wrestling. While most of the matches in these three night were good, this one was outstandingly well-paced and entertaining.

The last bout had Sara Del Rey go for the triple-crown, having gone 2-0 against Kong and Kuragaki so far. Ayako Hamada stood in her way, and this one started cautiously, with both women trying to find an opening that would give them an advantage. Eventually, however, all such pretense at subtlety was replaced by them kicking each other in the head. Repeatedly. With feeling. Del Rey eventually prevailed after fifteen or so minutes, courtesy of a spike piledriver, to complete her undefeated run. While a solid main event, it definitely came up a step or two short of the fabulous bout which immediately preceded it. However, given the amazing pedigree of those involved, Del Rey shouldn’t be embarrassed in any significant way.

Conclusion. This was a heck of an event, and kudos are due to Quackenbush and the entire Chikara organization for the undeniably huge effort that went into putting these three shows on. It’s probably not much of a stretch to describe them as the finest series of women’s wrestling shows ever put on in the United States, and for any fan of the genre, the DVDs – available from Smart Mark Video for $15 each, and the digital downloads are less than ten bucks – are almost essential. As noted, if you can only get one, the third night is likely the one to have, containing the standout bout of the trilogy, as well as a number of extremely solid other matches. And even if all you’ve ever done is yawn your way through a two-minute Divas match on Monday Night RAW, this is the equivalent of a triple-shot expresso, injected directly into a vein.

Date: December 2-4, 2011: Philadelphia, Boston, New York.
Star: Manami Toyota, Sara Del Ray, Aja Kong, Mayumi Ozaki
[Tip of the GWG hat to Minoh Kim for the Sara Del Rey illo, and Makeway Graphix for the event poster.]

Legendary Amazons

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“Never mind the plot, feel the epicness.”

To be honest, I have very little clue about what was going on here. Oh, the basics are clear enough. After losing their patriarch General Yang Zongbao (Ren) in battle, a noble family opts to send everyone out to the West to defend the realm from the usual invaders. They’re almost entirely female, but all possess significant ass-kicking ability, with their own particular weapon of choice. These are listed, in rapid order, near the start of the movie, and I’d suggest taking copious notes, because you won’t be able to recognize them otherwise: one armour-clad woman looks very much like another when they’re in battle. It’d probably have helped if they’d had a number on the back of their helmets or something. Hey, it’s not like this is a model of historical accuracy to begin with.

However, I can’t really comment with any degree of certainty on the rest of the plot, because I’m just too unsure what was going on. There’s the General’s wife (Cheung), his son Yang Wenguang (Xiao), who isn’t much of a warrior and the matron who more or less runs things in his absence (Cheng). But quite why there are so many widows with mad martial arts skills is never clear: perhaps it would make more sense if I’d seen the seventies’ Shaw Brothers flick, The 14 Amazons, based on the same source material. Once battle is joined, you’re best off focusing your attention on that, as the plot threads that spin off are incomprehensible, irrelevant or both. The good news is, the action is copious, and generally as well staged as you’d expect from a veteran like Chan – though there is a somewhat disturbing amount of undercranking, which I haven’t seen used in such a volume for a long time.

If Cheng is perhaps the only one to stand out among the main cast – certainly making much more of an impression than Cheung – perhaps the best thing is the return, in a supporting role, of Yukari Oshima. Chan had previously directed her in the fine fluff film, Outlaw Brothers, and I vaguely recall he was directing her off-screen too (if you know what I mean and I think you do…) Oshima hadn’t been seen for more than a decade, and still looks the part, even as she’s now nearly 50 – a startling thought. While she’s not used here as much as I’d like, perhaps it’s a signpost to a comeback further down the road? We can only hope.

Dir: Frankie Chan
Star: Cecilia Cheung, Richie Ren, Cheng Pei-Pei, Xiao Mingyu

Hired to Kill

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“A product of a different era, when men were men…and so were the women.”

Mercenary Frank Ryan (Thompson) is hired by a shadowy private entiry to go to a Mediterranean dictatorship, and bust out the leader (José Ferrer) of the rebels, so he can lead a revolt against current leader Michael Bartos (Oliver Reed). The only way to get in, is for Ryan to become a “faggot” fashion designer, along with a team of special-ops trained supermodels – or perhaps that should be, supermodel trained special-ops ladies, since they’re mostly bailed out of Turkish prisons, federal detention facilities, or otherwise have dubious pasts. After putting on their fashion show, and gaining Bartos’s trust, the team hit the road and head cross-country to the remote jail where the leader is being sequestered.

I liked the subversive nature of this. Ryan is a homophobe, making his role somewhat troublesome – particularly when Bartos grabs his junk and snogs him, to see if Reed’s undercover persona is who he claims (the most horrible thing about that is probably Reed’s handlebar mustache). And he’s also a chauvinist, bordering on the misogynist, unimpressed with his female associates, despite their obvious competence, especially crossing swords with local contact Ana (Moffett) – naturally, they end up bonking. Hey, it was 1990… I also enjoyed the variety of action heroines, each of whom have their own skills, useful to the mission, and genuine characters; despite the ubermacho cover, featuring Thompson looking very rugged, it does qualify for inclusion here.

What doesn’t work is the plot. The supermodel angel is just too ludicrous and contrived a concept to be credible in any way, and if you can’t come up with a hundred better reasons, you’re not trying. Also, let’s just say, what counted as “high fashion” at the time…now, not so much. There are other script holes, such as Bartos conveniently deciding to fly his chopper right into the battle zone, on discovering the plan. This helpfully sets up the final showdown (and, unfortunately, also led to the death of stuntman Clint Carpenter while performing an aerial stunt); however, it’s not quite what we saw from, oh, Colonel Gadaffi. Still, this entertaining nonsense should keep your eyelids open as things unfold, and the scenery (of both kinds) is pleasing enough.

Dir: Nico Mastorakis and Peter Rader
Star: Brian Thompson, Michelle Moffett, Barbara Lee Alexander, Jordana Capra