“When I was a kid our neighborhood was our universe. A universe of friendship and laughter. But something changed along the way. Gang violence took the place of family values.”
There’s a certain type of movie I like where an accomplished martial artist thinks it would be fun to star in a movie, and they put together a low budget production based around their school. An example would be Andre Lima’s “true story” BEYOND THE RING. It’s all based in cliches, and doesn’t quite have what you would call a visual style, but it has a certain amateur charm.
BLADE WARRIOR is another such movie, but it’s infused with a more impressive kind of DEADBEAT AT DAWN type energy, where they don’t really know what they’re doing but they’re dying to make a cool movie any way they can. It’s obvious that they’ve got friends and relatives, or maybe community theater people at best, in the cast, and storage rooms made up to look like a police station and stuff like that. And they’re not always convincing as a guy who wears a trenchcoat or talks like a tough guy. But it has enough of a home-made feel that some of the small things they pull off – like having legit martial artistry – seem really impressive.
Writer/director/producer Jino Kang plays Jack Lee, a cop who also practices Hapkido and runs his dad’s mini-mart. In the opening scene he combines all three by fighting and arresting a colorful gang of thugs who come in looking for protection money.
One of them spraypaints over the security camera. Then their leader Blades (Kirk Fong) – who has a ponytail, a black suit and a dangly dagger earring – comes in, drops a cigarette on the tiled floor and stomps it out in slow motion. The ominous keyboard drones on the soundtrack, extreme camera angles and aggressive style on a shoe string budget suggest EL MARIACHI, while the first person narration over convenience store confrontation reminds me of MENACE II SOCIETY. I’m not saying it’s as accomplished as either of those, but it has the advantage of sliding into an extended martial arts brawl with old school kung fu movie sound effects and even Power Rangers style whooshing whenever they turn their heads quickly. Whatever other great things they accomplished in their first films, Rodriguez and the Hughes Brothers did not deliver on the martial arts.
To tell you the truth, I was kinda into this movie as soon as I saw these henchmen. Look at these fuckin guys! I’m pretty sure at least two of them were in the New Power Generation.
Jack’s partner Philip is also his best friend since childhood Philip (as seen in flashbacks). He seems pretty self conscious about being a cool cop who lives life on the edge, what with his trenchcoat and his frequent need to chug Maalox. Philip proves his worth by having a good insult for Blades when he’s arresting him after a knife fight with Jack: “Now they call ya ‘Bleeds.'”
Years later Jack leaves the force, but still runs the store and the school. He’s trying to live a peaceful life, but then Blades gets out on parole and goes after him. The man is so powerful, so dangerous, so connected, that he hires a teenage skateboarder to throw a brick into the school.
One of the weirder aspects of the movie is Les, a teenager who is one of Jack’s students and seems to work for him, cleaning up the dojo and sometimes looking after his son. Les doesn’t talk, he stands all hunched over with his long hair down over his face like a J-horror ghost, and he has psychic premonitions. As Philip explains to his asshole partner Benedict (Steve Menasche, who also did the music), “He’s a crack baby. He’s got permanent nerve damage. But he’s got a very special gift and no one knows why.”
“Very special gift, huh? Looks like a freak to me,” says Benedict.
Anyway, Les gets to fight a little bit and then, uh… bad stuff happens. Later on, if you remember him, you think “Wait a minute, did I imagine it or was there a psychic crack baby subplot earlier in this movie?”
Eventually, Philip gets kidnapped and tied to a chair refusing to give up information, and Jack and his loyal friend George take matters into their own hands. “George wanted to try his long range microphone,” Jack explains in narration, “and I was ready to try anything.”
One thing that makes BLADE WARRIOR stand out even from bigger budget low budget action movies is that it has a high amount and wide variety of action. There are lots of high kicks, some knife throwing, mid-air shooting, stickfighting, sword duels, including one on a beach where they’re both shirtless but wearing jeans. Maybe #2 antagonist is Venus (Virginia Rallojay I think? the credits are not specific), who shows up at the family store in disguise with an innocent baby present, and also at the dojo screaming Jack’s name. I like that Kang is not afraid to have his character in long fights with a woman, and to have her hold her own.
Also important, there’s plenty of the weird shit (a strange dream sequence, a part where Philip remembers his childhood while being tortured and mutters “Friends… forever”) and, maybe in part because it took years to finish the movie, an enthusiastic (if inconsistent) amount of stylistic experimentation: slow motion, freeze frames, a camera attached to a katana flying at a guy, most of it shot in pleasingly grainy 16 mm, but completed with (not as appealing) digital interstitials of Kang sparring in the dojo, and GHOST DOG style onscreen wisdom.
Even if I don’t believe that nice guy Jack Lee really relates to the notion that “the way of the warrior is absolute acceptance of death,” I like this attempt at having some philosophical basis for some of the things in the movie. Kang’s love of teaching shows in the sequence where Jack is in a room practicing with earbuds in when some guys come in to get him. His students fight them off and he doesn’t even know it’s going on, but cross-cutting reveals him practicing the same moves they’re putting to use. So we know he taught them well.
Blades, for his part, practices swords next to a swimming pool while ignoring his whiny girlfriend. So you get some of the classic tropes, and though it’s clearly done with less money and experience than your standard movie that uses these types of cliches, there seems to be more of an attempt to do it artfully. Let me share with you a couple cool camera angles:
It’s way more visually ambitious than most movies of this type. The cinematography is credited to Joe Sutton, who doesn’t have any other IMDb credits other than co-writer, co-producer, camera operator, special effects and playing “The Driver” all in this same movie. That’s the kind of project this is.
Normally I would see an obscurity like this, which has only partial credits and no poster art or external reviews on IMDb, and I would wonder what the hell the story was behind this movie and the person who made it. But in this case I was lucky enough to have met Jino Kang at the book signing for david j. moore’s
The Good, the Tough & the Deadly: Action Movies & Stars 1960s-Present. At the time I had only seen his second movie, FIST 2 FIST, so I didn’t know to ask him about this. Fortunately david went through the experience of seeing BLADE WARRIOR and wanting to know more, so he interviewed Jino about it in the book.
It turns out Jino was the son of a Hapkido Grand Master. The family emigrated from South Korea to San Francisco in the ’70s and started their martial arts school. In the ’80s Jino won a tournament where the prize was a part in this Leo Fong movie that’s possibly unfinished and not listed on IMDb:
See him in the trailer there? Witnessing that low budget production gave him the bug and the inspiration to do it himself, so he studied film in college, and shot the convenience store opening while still a student. (That makes sense, it does feel different from the rest of the movie.)
I like Jino in the movies because he has a legitimate screen presence and talent for screen martial artistry, yet his persona is different from your typical action star. Maybe he puts on trenchcoats and tight black t-shirts like one, but he has a very different air about him, quiet, humble and thoughtful. And in person he seemed exactly the same. It was funny to talk to this down-to-earth family man about action movies we love and then it would come up organically in conversation that he filmed a scene with Judo Gene Lebell, or that he met so-and-so when he was inducted into the Masters Hall of Fame in 2009. Maybe his lack of ego is part of why we (or at least I, I don’t know about you guys) didn’t find out about him until david told me about him. It seems like he’s a martial arts teacher first, then an independent filmmaker, so not necessarily a guy who’s gonna be passing out 8x10s in hotel lobbies at Cannes next to Fred Williamson. But that’s also part of what’s so appealing about him.
I’m very aware that I’ve been suspicious of writers raving about movies made by people they know or got to hang out with or whatever. So it’s totally fair for you to take my praise here and adjust it plus or minus a few grains of salt. I feel confident that I would’ve enjoyed BLADE WARRIOR and told you all about it whether I met him or not. But it’s also true that him being a nice guy encourages me to root for him to have his movies seen and make a mark.
With that disclaimer in mind, if BLADE WARRIOR sounds like something you could get into, please check it out. And yes, I will be taking a look at Jino’s other two movies in the coming weeks.