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Digesting the lowest rung of pop culture so you don't have to!
It’s been perhaps too long since I last explored the greatness of cinema circa 1995. As discussed many times already, the year has long been one of the most fascinating years in modern movie history for me. In the past few days, I’ve caught a couple of 1995’s most brilliant movie gems streaming on Netflix. I’ve had some time to process these films, even though I have seen both multiple times, and have found some parallels between the two. Neither were commercially successful whatsoever. One of them, in fact, debuted on premium cable television. One was a critical success, while the other met with scorn from both critics and fans. The films I’m going to talk about today are Strange Days and Fist of the North Star.
Strange Days debuted in theaters in October 1995, where it was met with critical acclaim but complete audience disdain, eventually losing a ton of money for 20th Century Fox. Directed by eventual Academy Award winner Kathryn Bigelow, written and produced by then-husband and eventual Academy Award winner James Cameron (with an assist from the future Academy Award-nominated Jay Cocks), and starring Academy Award-nominated Ralph Fiennes (in his U.S. film production debut), Strange Days had a very high profile pedigree behind it. In terms of technical talent, the film was also notable for its innovative use of handheld cameras for first-person sequences, as well as Bigelow’s attention to action direction and slick editing.
Taking place in the far off year of 1999 (set mostly against the backdrop of New Year’s Eve and thus at the dawn of a new millennium), Strange Days is a sort of end-of-the-world story in Los Angeles. An outlawed new technology, called SQUID (for Superconducting Quantum Interference Device, a sort of memory recorder and playback), accidentally captures the execution-style killing of a prominent rap artist. Ex-cop Lenny Nero (Fiennes, in a charismatic, slick performance), who illegally peddles SQUID devices and taped experiences to a rich but seedy clientele, must break the case wide open with the help of Mace (a fantastic Angela Bassett), a no-nonsense limousine driver and friend, as well as Lenny’s ex-cop buddy Max (a manic Tom Sizemore) and former girlfriend Faith (a strung-out Juliette Lewis).
Cameron wrote the initial screenplay after being heavily affected by the 1992 L.A. riots. A bad economy, rampant violence, escapism (in the form of SQUID recordings), drug addiction, racism, police brutality – all of these ugly aspects of humanity are explored in the script for Strange Days, to the point where the film can feel somewhat unfocused and over-stuffed in places (but it is never boring). The film is also totally unsubtle, hitting its points over the head of the viewer near countless times throughout its lengthy running time. But the whole thing is just so damn beautiful to watch – Strange Days is a gorgeously shot and well-directed film, with a pacing that ramps up considerably in the film’s second half, much like with Bigelow’s breakthrough commercial hit Point Break a few years earlier.
Strange Days is also unescapably 1995. Glammed up hookers (with requisite hearts of gold), rock stars, and street peddlers permeate the screen. Ralph Fiennes looks like he stepped out of an October 1995 issue of Vogue or Vanity Fair. A rock performer in a club wears overalls ironically as was the style at the time. The video-phone and even the SQUID technology (which just looks like a Sony mini-disc player) are vintage 1995 to be sure. I also love how everyone in this film seems to either be an ex-cop or a hooker (and every locale is industrial or filthy), almost as if the film was ghost-written by Frank Miller. In the universe of Strange Days, everyone knows everyone else through someone else, and everyone has some kind of detailed backstory or former relationship that haunts them. The film is like a cyber-punk neo-noir thriller, though I get the feeling that calling it that would earn me a thousand years of scorn on the internet.
As noted earlier, Strange Days was a total box office failure. It grossed just under 8 million dollars against a large 42 million dollar budget, setting back Bigelow’s career in the process (she wouldn’t direct a film again until 2002’s box-office bomb K19: The Widowmaker). Critics, however, enjoyed the film; Roger Ebert praised the production, giving it a four-star review, for example. Strange Days bombed anyway, probably because it was incredibly ahead of its time, both technically and in terms of its writing, which was prescient despite being largely based on an event that happened in 1992. A few years after the release of Strange Days, the LAPD would be plagued by the Rampart scandal (an event that inspired the television series The Shield as well as the film Crash), somewhat echoing the execution-style killing that set off the plot of the film.
On the opposite end of the critical spectrum stands 1995’s feature film adaptation of Fist of the North Star, a Japanese manga property famous pretty much everywhere except the United States (for a variety of reasons too long and complicated to get into within the confines of this write-up – I hesitate to write at length about the more famous manga and animated versions, so this review will focus solely on the events of the 1995 film adaptation). Fist of the North Star is the story of Kenshiro (Gary Daniels, miscast despite an apparent appreciation for the source material), who is betrayed by his friend and rival Shin (Costas Mandylor, equally miscast) and left for dead in the wastelands of a post-apocalyptic earth. Kenshiro is fated to become the Fist of the North Star, a martial arts master, and must defeat Shin, thus saving the innocent residents of the wasteland and helping them rebuild society in the process.
Despite its release direct to cable, Fist of the North Star is filled with considerably recognizable actors, if not outright acting talent on the whole. Malcolm McDowell, in a glorified cameo, plays Ryuken, Kenshiro’s adopted father who teaches the “North Star” fighting style. The aforementioned Costas Mandylor, who has popped up in many various productions for the past twenty years – including the hit Saw franchise – portrays Lord Shin, the master of the “Southern Cross” fighting style. Lead actor Gary Daniels played in another film adapted from a Japanese property, the Jackie Chan vehicle City Hunter, and showed up in 2010’s hit film The Expendables as The Brit, a lead henchman. Daniels is perhaps the only one in the cast with any real martial arts experience, having accumulated 29 victories in professional kickboxing in the 80s and 90s.
The film also features a bevy of recognizable actors in supporting roles. Sean Penn’s younger brother Chris (who sadly died in 2006) is clearly having the time of his life as the villainous Jackal, hamming it up at every available opportunity. Clint Howard gives it his creepy all as a villainous neo-Nazi named Stalin. Former WWF and Japanese pro-wrestler Vader has a cameo appearance/poorly-staged fight scene with Gary Daniels about two-thirds of the way into the movie. Additionally appearing in the film are Dante Basco, Melvin Van Peebles, and Downtown Julie Brown, making The Fist of the North Star a veritable who’s who of “that guy’s.” The love interest, Julia, is unfortunately played an unknown, Japanese actress Isako Washio, whose English speaking-talents are, let’s say, non-existent.
A detailed college thesis could be written about how Fist of the North Star fails as a film adaptation, but again I feel as if that is beyond the scope of this write-up. Fist of the North Star would have failed as a movie regardless of its source material, I feel. The director, Tony Randel (known for 1988’s Hellbound: Hellraiser II), doesn’t seem to have much of an eye for martial arts choreography. He doesn’t seem to have much of an idea how to adequately pace a movie either, as Fist of the North Star feels interminably slow in certain areas. It seems to take an eternity for Kenshin to accept his destiny, leading to numerous scenes of Gary Daniels standing the rain looking forlorn and lost. In the hands of a more skilled martial arts film director, this could have been a neat little B-movie gem.
Despite the massive fan criticism of the film adaptation, however, I do find certain aspects of Fist of the North Star admirable and notable. The practical special effects are pretty cool, especially the scenes with Shin wrecking people’s worlds. Kenshiro’s first fight scene, against three nameless thugs harassing an innocent couple, also feature some good practical effects work, including a broken jaw, a massive chest contusion, and an exploding head (which the film ultimately cuts away from, but which was apparently filmed). There’s some good makeup work going on with the biker gangs, including a large man with a messed-up eye that kind of haunts me still. Chris Penn’s Jackal is also disgusting to look at, and his untimely end is pretty cool to watch as well. The film was obviously shot on the cheap, but some of the effects work is decent.
Ultimately, Fist of the North Star just isn’t a very good movie. It is slow and plodding, the story could stand to be more personal and a lot more focused, and the martial arts choreography and action sequences aren’t that great. Additionally, Daniels is miscast and doesn’t physically fit the role of Kenshiro, though I do find him somewhat charming, in a goofy way, in the role (I actually kind of wish he would have broken out as an action star). Randel doesn’t seem to know what to do with the film, and while his background in horror helped in terms of practical effects, it does him no favors in framing action sequences. Against all logic, I still find the film somewhat appealing. There’s some pretty notable quality within the cast itself, and really there just aren’t many films out there like this. I just wish the damn thing was a bit more competently made.