UNLUCKY STARS (2015) is a no-budget indie action movie in this pretty new and rare category of fan-made action movies. That’s kind of selling it short, because these are legit, accomplished stuntmen, martial artists and choreographers, and it’s designed mainly to showcase their work. But they’re also all about throwing in little movie homages and cameos in a way more common to no-budget horror. Like they have a detective agency called Golden Harvest Private Investigations (with the Golden Harvest logo and everything), Simon Rhee has a cameo and is apparently meant to be his BEST OF THE BEST character Dae Han, J.J. “UNDISPUTED II” Perry shows up, there’s a running gag about a reality show for action stars in rehab (and apparently Amy Johnston is on it at some point? I didn’t spot her), and the ending seems to set the heroes up to live the plot of WHEELS ON MEALS.
Oh, and also two of the main characters are supposed to be fringe action stars. Jose Montesinos (director of 5 HEADED SHARK ATTACK) plays Tomas De La Cruz, “Peru’s biggest action star,” who has a $15,000 gambling debt and is trying to do another movie to get it. Sari Sabella (NIGHTMARE WEDDING) plays Sameer Yousef, a Jordanian martial artist who gets fired from his first American movie and sinks into his obsessive De La Cruz fandom.
Neither demonstrate the screen presence to really seem like major movie stars, but at least the fake movie titles are on point: ROAD HUNT, MULTIPLE IMPACT, UNTOUCHABLE TARGET, FIST OF ONE. Good shit. I would watch all of those.
The protagonists are two guys from the P.I. office with the amoral job of collecting the money – Josh Whitman (Dennis Ruel, also the writer/director) is a young dude doing taking a temp job as a favor to a friend, and Ken Champaco (Ken Quitugua, THE PAPER TIGERS) is the guy from the agency he’s partnered up with. The appeal of Whitman is that he really looks like some random young dude that you wouldn’t think could necessarily kick ass, but he’s actually a stuntman in CLOSE RANGE, WOLF WARRIOR 2 and THE MERCENARY. So it was genuinely surprising to me how he handled himself when Ken tested him by having a bounty hunter friend (Steven Yu) jump him.
Ken, though, is the real gem of the movie. I raved about Quitugua in my review of THE PAPER TIGERS, where he was absolutely great as the villain (and also choreographer). This movie shows that he has range, trading the menace for dry wit. He’s always funny as he underplays the danger and craziness and acts like he doesn’t know he’s scaring his partner.
Another major character is David, a stunt double for Sameer who ends up replacing him, becoming his target. He’s played by the movie’s action coordinator/fight choreographer Vlad Rimburg, who pulls off the same trick as Whitman because he’s an unassuming bearded guy, husky enough to be referred to as a “fat guy” by a guy he fights, but he’s also a prolific stuntman with fight team and action design credits on BAAHUBALI 2, WOLF WARRIOR 2, BLOODSHOT and more.
As I mentioned in my review of THE PAPER TIGERS, I’m not up on the whole scene of martial artists and stunt people making no-budget shorts for Youtube – I just hear about them from Michael Scott of the Adkins Undisputed podcast and some of the other so-called “Action Twitter” luminaries. But from what I’ve read, writer/director/star Ruel is part of a group called The Stunt People and Quitugua is from Zero Gravity Stunts. And I can’t find them on IMDb but I believe it’s Andy and Brian Le of Martial Club, who I know from the pool fight in THE PAPER TIGERS, who try to mug those guys and get into a fight.
I guess this was funded on IndieGoGo and took several years to complete. The look is definitely cheap – there are your obvious digital sign replacements and muzzle flashes, the occasional “Ken Burns effect” on a still photo for an establishing shot, etc. But it doesn’t seem like something your buddies could do in their backyard, partly because the mechanics are all there, particularly in a big fight scene set in a church. It’s a ton of choreography and stuntwork and the camera moves and angles keep it energetic while always covering what you need to see. The fights are much more effective than some of the comedic ideas (like a TMZ parody called Total Moronic Zone), but they’re the main emphasis, and the central comedic conceit – the buddy movie chemistry between Josh and Ken – is pretty good.
So I absolutely want to see this group of people making more movies. They don’t even need a studio budget, necessarily. Just give them a DTV budget and I bet they’ll make something pretty exciting.
I saved one important asset for last, because a movie like this can get a whole lot more mileage if it has a good villain for the showdown at the end, and this one certainly does. The gangster boss who’s sending out all the henchmen and berating them for their failure is played by none other than Sam Hargrave, well dressed and looking kind of like Robert Pattinson. He’s just a funny character, a crazy rich boy who’s always talking about his dad (the top boss), and he absolutely would be a good bonus to the film if he was only hired as an actor. But of course the heroes have a big fight with him at the end so it’s useful that he’s the director of EXTRACTION, action director of ATOMIC BLONDE and WOLF WARRIOR 2, Captain America stunt double, etc.
All of the characters and storylines (even the reality TV one) intersect, so everybody gets to have a bunch of fights in different styles. I like that the reality show mansion has a security guard (Miguel Padilla) armed with a wooden staff. I mean, why not? And there’s a joke about how the henchmen forgot to bring guns, so everyone has to actually fight. I always go for the “putting down the guns for a more honorable fight” cliche, but this works too. It gives you what you want at the end and then it’s on its way. (With outtakes and a tag during the credits though if you want a little more.)
Oh, and one other thing: there is a company that made a limited edition blu-ray of this with commentary and a bunch of other extras. But also if you wish you can watch it legally for free on Youtube. So here it is.