Tuesday, June 5, 2012

THE STREET FIGHTER (1974, Shigehiro Ozawa, Toei Company)

One of the half dozen or so titles from the initial "Kung fu" craze of the early 70's that is still fondly remembered to this day, THE STREET FIGHTER retains all of it's swaggering (if brutish) charm. Too many of these films, even the great ones, can sometimes feel flat because their heroes are too wrapped up in stoicism. Sonny Chiba is just the opposite; a swaggering menace of a menace who spits out mockeries and crushes scumbags' skulls. He's a man who, when a complete strange lets him know that he wants to crush his heart, lets loose a whisper of a smile before he attacks. He's a killer, sure, but he's never a bore. We like him, if only because we know that if he were to come after us, his ego wouldn't allow for anything but a fair fight.

This is not a film that you can do justice to by describing the plot. In a sentence: Chiba plays Tsurugi, a hired gun who, in the course of a job finds out who controls the Yakuza, and becomes a target for termination. The thrills in this movie don't come from the ingenuity of the story, but the execution (pun intended) of the big story beats. Every fight is punctuated by a wonderful bit of murderous violence. The most famous example comes about two thirds into the film when a fight with gangsters in an alley is emphatically ended with a flying fist to the head. When the impact comes, the screen shifts to "X-Ray" and we see the bad guy's skull being impacted. When we cut back to the man's he face he spews out blood, and slumps down under the crimson rain.

This film is significantly more violent than its Chinese counterparts (even films like 5 FINGERS OF DEATH), and it cannot be denied that the violence (as opposed to just action) is a major part of its appeal. One of the things that make this film legendary to this day is that it was the first film ever to receive an X rating for violence in America. Chiba believed in showing the consequences of the violence, and here the blows do real damage. There are only two extended one-on-one fights in the Chinese style (mostly due to a lack of good martial arts actors and stuntmen in Japan, where the action cinema tends to favor swordplay over fisticuffs), most of the action is hard, fast, and dirty. Chiba is a terror; launching into his enemies with reckless abandon and sadistic glee.

The direction is mediocre, and everything else about this movie feels second-rate, but Chiba's presence puts this over the top as a classic. Any time he's allowed to cut loose, the movie finds it's pulse. I should also note that it's almost impossible to find this film subtitled (which is my preference) and I had to see this dubbed. Even the dubbing (which is about as good as a Godzilla movie's) can do nothing to diminish Chiba's greatness, as his eyes, his manner, and his charisma demand your attention every time.

There are two particularly fine fight sequences which deserve special mention. The first comes about a third of the way into the film, when Tsurugi attempts to convince a man to pay him to shut down the Yakuza. The man Tsurugi fights looks like a Japanese version of The Penguin from Batman, and is a karate sensai. This leads to the most surreal fight in the film where Tsurugi, who has to this point been invincible, is beaten from pillar to post by a Nippon Weeble. There's no way I can describe in words how amusing I find this.

The second is the final fight of the film, and it is pretty spectacular. For all the film's technical shortcomings they do a fine job in creating a slow build between Tsurugi and the principal fighting villain of the piece (played by Masashi Ishibashi, a guy who looks like someone's uncle). The final showdown happens in the rain, atop a Tokyo skyscraper, and the finale is unlike anything I've ever seen in a martial arts film.

NOTE: This film is not an especially enlightened one with regards to race and/or gender. Tsurugi sells a woman who cannot pay his fee into sex slavery early on, and the only black character in the film attempts two rapes before Tsurugi rips his balls off. Keep this stuff in mind before you decide who you watch this exercise in violence with.

COOLEST MOMENTS (That I didn't get to):
- Chiba convinces a death row inmate he's not a real priest with a close up of his deadly eyes.
- Oxygen coma strike.
- Chinese Liberace controls the Yakuza in Hong Kong.
- Chiba punches out a man's teeth and his entire mouth fills up with blood.
- Tsurugi shoves his fingers into a man's eye-sockets, killing him.
- Throat torn out.

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