The Loose Canon: BLOOD AND BONE (2009)
There have been two proud moments in my getting-close-to-20-years of writing about action movies when a truly special one appeared inconspicuously in the DTV market and I was the first person I’m aware of to point to it and say holy shit you guys, check this out. One was John Hyams’ UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: REGENERATION, which later gained attention from some of the more respectable critics thanks to its great and very arty followup UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: DAY OF RECKONING. The other is BLOOD AND BONE, directed by Ben Ramsey (LOVE AND A BULLET). I do think it has grown something of a following, but not the credit it deserves as a perfect showcase for an under-recognized star in peak form, or as a stone cold classic of its genre. Like another Michael-Jai-White-starring DTV favorite, UNDISPUTED II: LAST MAN STANDING, BLOOD AND BONE isn’t even available on region A Blu-Ray. What the fuck, video industry? Too badass for hi-def?
The ten year anniversary of BLOOD AND BONE is coming up next year, so I’m giving the rights-holders and the gatekeepers a heads up. I want to see a cool, respectful collector’s edition Blu-Ray with added extras and a painted cover and shit. I want to see theatrical screenings. I am positive this will play great with audiences. Make it happen. A parade would be cool too, but that’s negotiable.
I’m a connoisseur of the underground fighting circuit movies, from HARD TIMES to LIONHEART to FIGHTING. Some guy finds a manager or trainer, usually after drifting into town, enters an illegal fighting circuit, everybody scoffs at him but he stuns them with his skills, angers some gamblers, somebody tries not to pay him and that leads to another fight, eventually everything comes to a head with a high stakes bout against some infamous champion working for a nefarious person. Usually there’s another thing going on like a feud over a woman, an attempt to erase an enormous debt, or a vendetta over some past transgression. The bosses make threats, somebody bets their life savings, somebody’s supposed to throw a fight, a loved one is threatened or held hostage. BLOOD AND BONE is a flawless, crystalline construction of that exact formula, but so much extra flavor is added by the mystery of what the hero is up to, the fascinating villain, the colorful but clear visual style, and the film’s rare placement as a modern action classic within the history of black cinema, that at first glance it almost doesn’t even seem like that type of movie.
The introduction of White’s character Bone is one for the record books. He’s in prison (we never learn exactly why), in a bathroom, where a gang led by the menacing backyard demolisher turned MMA pro Kimbo Slice (R.I.P.) have come to shank him. Instead of cowering in fear like they’d like he keeps his back to them, cleaning his shirt in the sink, like that’s just more important to him than paying attention to what they have to say. When he finally turns to look at them he gives them a count of five.
Obviously he knows they’re not going to say “Okay, sorry about that Bone, we’ll leave now.” It’s just a way to disrespect them and make them think “wait – why is this guy so confident?” before he absolutely destroys them with flying kicks, battering ram fists, his wet shirt and commandeered shivs. This is maximum MJW, eyes colder than liquid nitrogen, muscles bursting from every part of him, capable of leaping and spinning but with a preference for slamming through a body in just a few powerful, economical movements. He doesn’t get any “Just How Badass Is He?” speeches, but they’d almost be redundant. There is an ON DEADLY GROUND moment when someone in a crowd declares “That motherfucker Bones is the truth!”
Bone is an unusually invincible action hero, a Seagal attitude standing on Van Damme legs. In an era when even James Bond had to explore his human vulnerabilities, here’s Bone channeling the infallibility of a Bruce Lee or Sonny Chiba character. Some obstacles take longer than others, but he’s basically an unstoppable bulldozer. The best his opponents can hope for is to be a good-sized bump in the road when he runs them over.
That’s pretty much his way of life. Playing chess with his neighbor Roberto (Dick Anthony Williams, UP TIGHT, MO’ BETTER BLUES) he explains that he always plans four moves ahead, a clear parallel to the execution of his (SPOILER) not-even-revealed-yet plot for revenge. It’s 55 minutes in when he suddenly reveals what’s really going on: rival fight manager James (Eamonn Walker, UNBREAKABLE, TEARS OF THE SUN, LORD OF WAR) framed his friend Danny (Kevin Phillips, NOTORIOUS, RED TAILS) and had him killed in prison. Bone manipulated James to get close to Danny’s wife Angela (Michelle Belegrin), now a heroin junkie and James’ kept woman, and get her into rehab before an eventual reunion with her son (Brody Nicholas Lee/Cody Benjamin Lee), who he already has a friendship with because he intentionally rents a room from the kid’s foster mother (Nona Gaye, THE MATRIX RELOADED, THE POLAR EXPRESS, xXx: STATE OF THE UNION)! His entire fighting career and living situation are based around a series of moves headed for James’ king.
Just as Bone occasionally unleashes a spectacular leaping kick that takes out four people, he’ll sometimes deploy a funny or badass quip. But more often he stays silent, saying everything with a glare. This is contrasted with his constantly jibber-jabbering manager Pinball (Dante Basco, HOOK), whose confidence and shiny suits somehow allow him to get away with peppering his fight introductions with the affectionate n-word, the affectionate gay slurs, the less affectionate calling everybody bitches and motherfuckers. He seems like another rebirth of Ramsey’s character Cisco, the arrogant, yammering hitman who calls everybody “baby” in THE BIG HIT (played by Lou Diamond Phillips) and LOVE AND A BULLET (played by Walter Jones), except that he stays loyal to Bone, even getting punched for him so hard that he pukes. (A direct LOVE AND A BULLET reference: Hammerman, who punches him, says, “Don’t you know I’m from Pittsburgh? We don’t play that shit!,” a callback to what Vaughn says all the time.)
James thinks he has something in common with Bone, some kind of sense of honor and warrior purity. He sees himself as a “street hustler” trying to learn about “honor and nobility.” He doesn’t live humbly like Bone – he has a driver, an entourage, a fancy home and suits, while Bone rents a tiny room and doesn’t even own a car. But James doesn’t drink or do drugs, he doesn’t allow profanity in his home, he has disdain for cell phones, video games and blunts, he keeps helmets and weapons as shrines to ancient warriors, he practices the samurai sword, he quotes Genghis Khan.
He’s also sadistic as hell. He shifts lightning quick from seemingly-a-cool-guy to what-a-total-fuckin-psycho. It’s an intimidation technique in the unforgettable dinner scene, when he instigates a joyous Wang Chung singalong only so he can suddenly interrupt it by stabbing his host with his sword. I think it’s a genuine spontaneous shift, though, when he’s pleading for prostitute Monique (Jontille Gerard) to calm down and tell him her side of the story, then abruptly rams into her with the car. He’s not nearly as in control of himself as he thinks.
James sees his fighters and his women as resources, available to him for services or for trade. He’s not prepared for the true purity of Bone, who’s only feigning susceptibility to being “given” a woman, and who is entering the high stakes fight specifically to not win. James can’t wrap his head around someone like that. It’s a transcendent villain and performance by Walker. In THE BIG HIT, James’ anti-swearing rule would be a funny joke, but here it plays as disquieting. You know it’s “check” when Bone’s actions cause Mr. No Profanity to start saying “fuck” over and over again. Checkmate can’t be too far off.
Ramsey’s directing chops seem to have advanced in the seven years since the enjoyable LOVE AND A BULLET (co-directed with Kantz). He and cinematographer Roy H. Wagner (NINE DEATHS OF THE NINJA, PRAY FOR DEATH, RETURN TO HORROR HIGH, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: DREAM WARRIORS, DROP ZONE) – and maybe stunt coordinator/second unit director J.J. Perry (UNDISPUTED II, THE SHEPHERD, THE TOURNAMENT) – come up with camera moves that feel lively but never confusing. They’re very aware of the importance of keeping most or all of White’s body in the frame, not just for moves…
…but also for the underappreciated artform of badass poses after the moves.
(Props also to editor Dean Goodhill [Albert Pyun’s KNIGHTS, Andrew Davis’s THE FUGITIVE] for knowing not to speed past these crucial visual punctuation marks.)
Sometimes the camera moves along sideways following White like he’s in a video game. In the most memorable shot the camera dollies back as he moves toward it, incapacitating eleven fighters along the way. Especially since this comes from the same year as low-ACR movies like TRANSFORMERS 2, NINJA ASSASSIN, GAMER and CRANK 2: HIGH VOLTAGE, I appreciate this team’s ability to create an energetic feel without violating their pact to show the audience what the hell is supposed to be going on.
BLOOD AND BONE wasn’t marketed as a black or “urban” movie per se, so I doubt many people think of it on the continuum from Melvin Van Peebles to Spike Lee to John Singleton to The Hughes Brothers to Lee Daniels to Ryan Coogler. But we have a black director, hero, and villain. Their Asian sidekicks are well versed in black slang and fashion. Bone’s strategic housing choice puts him in the classic scenario of the good people of Los Angeles looking out for the kids and trying to chase drug dealers out of the neighborhood. The one sympathetic aspect of James is that he comes up against the racism of McVeigh (Julian Sands, WARLOCK) and the other white elites he works for, and is determined to use Bone to break through their barriers. Also, the tension of that Wang Chung scene comes in part from the extreme whiteness of his victim (Eric Von Doymi, BACHELOR PARTY MASSACRE) – the sweater around his neck, the animated discussion of golf, his surprise that James is familiar with “Dance Hall Days.”
Maybe we don’t think of it that way because it’s less immersed in black culture than in the culture of martial arts in America. It has the first movie appearances by streetfighting legend Slice and “face of women’s MMA” Gina Carano (who cameos as Veretta Vendetta). James’ top fighter Hammerman is played by Bob Sapp (a football player turned wrestler turned kickboxing and MMA legend) and his right hand man Teddy D is played by Ron Yuan (a stuntman, bit player in movies like RING OF FIRE, BLOODVIST V, VANISHING SON III and DOUBLE DRAGON who was action/second unit director for BLACK DYNAMITE, ANGEL OF DEATH and WILD CARD). Of course many of the street fight combatants are played by real MMA people, including Maurice Smith, Imani “The Juggernaut” Lee and Matt Mullins. If you know your stunt people, you may spot Larnell Stovall (choreographer of UNDISPUTED III, KICKBOXER: VENGEANCE, and much more), Sam Hargrave (action director for ATOMIC BLONDE and WOLF WARRIOR 2) or Tanoai Reed (The Rock’s long time stunt double, had more screen time than Seagal in AGAINST THE DARK).
And there are two funny cameos by absolute legends: “Judo” Gene LeBell (WALKING TALL, EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE, BATTLE CREEK BRAWL, REMO WILLIAMS, DEATH WISH 4, KICKBOXER 2) as a rehab attendant who gets punched out
and Bob Wall (WAY OF THE DRAGON, ENTER THE DRAGON, BLACK BELT JONES, GAME OF DEATH, ENTER THE NINJA, CODE OF SILENCE, INVASION U.S.A., Isaac Florentine made a whole documentary about him) as O’Hara, a member of the Consortium. His big part is when James breaks the rules by pulling a sword on Bone. McVeigh watches for a bit and then yells “O’Hara!”, and with no time to even think about it O’Hara tosses a sword to Bone.
I adored this gloriously lunatic moment even before I was reminded that O’Hara is Wall’s character from ENTER THE DRAGON. BLOOD AND BONE takes place in the Dragonverse.
There are so many beautiful little details like that, not so much references as just subtle little ideas or things going on between the characters. One example is a bluff Bone pulls to trap James into underestimating him. When James is trying to get Bone to fight for him he lets him hold his samurai sword. Bone pulls on the tassle and holds it like he has no idea what to do with it.
But in the endgame when O’Hara throws him what looks like the same sword, Bone spins it around like a god damn ninja. Which prompts this wonderful reaction shot:
And that’s before Bone shows his confidence by tossing the blade away like garbage and dueling him using only the sheath. DO YOU UNDERSTAND HOW GREAT THIS MOVIE IS?
I’ve always liked that after he tells Tamara to “call me Bone” we never find out for sure if that’s his first name, last name, nickname, or alias he just made up. The credits spoil it by calling him “Isaiah Bone,” but there’s still much left intriguingly ambiguous. When all is said and done, Bone has gotten revenge for his dead friend, not for himself. And before literally walking off into the sunset he says he’s “Got some business to take care of.” For all we know he still has to go after whoever put him in prison, or whoever killed his twin brother thinking it was him (an awfully weird detail to drop without further explanation or relevance!). Also he pointedly told McVeigh “I’ll see you later,” so maybe he intends to take down the whole international fighting racket.
The European DVD quotes Ain’t It Cool News (me) on the back cover: “I DEMAND BLOOD & BONE 2.” And that request may yet be fulfilled. White has started a new company called Jaigantic Studios to crowdfund a sort of BLACK DYNAMITE spiritual sequel called THE OUTLAW JOHNNY BLACK. Their fundraising video mentions BLOOD AND BONE 2 as the company’s next project. (No word on if Ramsey is involved.)
Ramsey told my friend david j. moore in a 2013 interview that a theatrical release “was the plan” and that someone from Sony later admitted to him that they’d screwed up by not following through with that. It will always be infuriating to speculate about – what if it had caught on, and these guys could’ve made a string of movies like this, as Van Damme and Seagal had been allowed to do at their peaks?
Luckily, White has had no shortage of work. Since BLOOD AND BONE he’s directed and co-starred in NEVER BACK DOWN 2 and 3, starred in FALCON RISING, fought Dolph and Tony Jaa in SKIN TRADE, co-starred with Steve Austin in CHAIN OF COMMAND, and with Scott Adkins in ACCIDENT MAN. He did a MORTAL KOMBAT web-series and a Metal Hurlant TV series, not to mention two seasons of his great BLACK DYNAMITE cartoon on Adult Swim, or his scene-stealing role in FREAKY DEAKY, plus the occasional Tyler Perry or CHOCOLATE CITY: VEGAS or Nicki Minaj video or b-movie like ANDROID COP or a couple Seagal movies or playing Bronze Tiger on Arrow. I don’t think any of those things serve him as well as BLOOD AND BONE did, but many of them are all kinds of fun and together they show his great range of talent. Also, the mission statement for his new company sounds just right: “These movies will not only appeal to my existing global action base but also provide well-constructed storytelling that prioritizes uplifting and empowering imagery to an urban audience who’ve been denied such for decades,” he says in a press release.
But man, it doesn’t seem fair that the director of such a classic wouldn’t get the chance to build from it. Ramsey has yet to direct another feature, though he did a crowd-funded short called BLACK SALT and IMDb says he’s filming another one called INTERFACE. As a writer he’s worked primarily as a script doctor. I know he was developing a Luke Cage movie for some time, but that went away before the TV show.
Also unrecognized is screenwriter Michael Andrews, whose credits since are a “comedy documentary” about the cannabis industry and an in-post-production thriller called AMERICAN DREAM. I would be surprised if Ramsey didn’t rewrite some of BLOOD AND BONE’s dialogue, but at the very least Andrews must’ve brought the characters, the tight structure and the strategic way the information is revealed, and he deserves great credit for that. Somebody please get this guy a plaque or a samurai sword or something.
At the time, I felt like BLOOD AND BONE was an action star vehicle on the level of our early favorites from Van Damme and Seagal. I speak of it with the same reverence as I do BLOODSPORT or HARD TO KILL, but an argument could be made that it’s better because there’s nothing in it that I enjoy for being unintentionally funny. Everything works. They say there’s no such thing as a perfect game of chess. This DTV action movie comes close.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.