Eh what’s that? You think I’m reviewing that cult classic film animation or anime tv series? Sadly this is a film only review of the live action version released 9 years later in 1995… Yeah live action versions of cartoons usually need masses of CGI to be passable, this was too early for that and so falls into the same vein as “who sponsored a sequel, and another, and another for that film!?!?”
Why did I watch it? Well you know, it just happened to be there. Why was it made? I dunno, to cash in? To see what too much makeup and prosthetics look like? To give the finger to the fans maybe. Basically it was made and I’m reviewing it, so there.
A little backstory
For either FotNS fans or newbies there’s little point in me explaining or referencing the manga or animated versions much because the people in charge of this didn’t really seem to care, that said the viewer needs to know at least the basics so here we go:
The film is set the very first part of the comic – the world is a post-nuclear/apocalyptic wasteland, most of the animals have died including the people but those left seem to be immune to what would likely be megatons of radiation. Their version of acid rain smokes hence digging for clean water is extremely important. As usual the class system has remained intact; there’s a tyrant, his army and the rest i.e. the poor slaves who are typically the targets of raids of the military/thugs who think everything/one is up for grabs and ‘jollies’.
The masses are trying to form a rebellion but they lack cohesion, resources, health and are constantly beaten down. The tyrant has a ‘vision’ that he’s trying to build, he’s already got a city, headquarters, lackeys, a kidnapped queen, amazing fighting skill and is the icon of the Southern Cross (the southern lands and name of his fighting style) but there’s someone out there that threatens him… Someone from his past, his ex-best friend, also the holder of the Fist of the North Star – a legendary style that allows the user to manipulate pressure points and cause internal organs to explode.
That’s basically it and that’s more than enough really but the execution is dire. To me it’s firmly in league with Masters of the Universe aka He-Man (1987) and Flash Gordon (1980) but those were ok for their time whereas this was made much later and didn’t learn the lesson, much like wardrobe didn’t think twice when they put George Clooney in a Batman suit that wasn’t right for him.
Everything that could go wrong…
“The Fist of the North Star and the Southern Cross should never fight. (Otherwise the ‘balance’ is upset.) The teaching is true.”
And that’s a big ‘but’! In the very beginning we see the old master of the FofNS shot dead without any kind of fight by the tyrant which was really an anti-climatic way to start off but it gets worse…
The Tyrant – Lord Shin (played by Costas Mandylor) – decides he can circumvent the teaching by shooting the master Ryuken (played by Malcolm McDowell) and then taking the fight to his best friend, the disciple. He also decides he’s going to kidnap Julia, his best friend’s girlfriend because apparently he’s in love with her too.
But first, what is with his makeup!?!? I mean seriously, and it’s not just him – almost the whole cast look as if they’ve been smothered in foundation and then left in a sauna. It’s distracting. It’s bad enough that at times people’s faces and bodies look like the department bought way too much latex and just had to use it all in one film but Shin in particular looks like they plastered on his foundation. Even his foyer portrait looks overdone and if the humungous statue of himself in front of his castle was in colour it’d probably look caked as well. Additionally he and the rest of the cast have blinding teeth, even the poverty stricken ones. Only some of the thugs give Queen Victoria or Captain Jack Sparrow a run for their money but I presume that’s more to do with making them as ugly as they are in personality.
Back to the plot – didn’t anyone teach this guy that you’re unlikely to win fair lady’s affection by almost killing her lover let alone whilst restraining her and doing it in her face and forcing her to say she loves you instead? Bad form dude. Totally. Then making it worse by repeatedly telling her over the years that everything you’ve done is for her and in her name by sticking up posters of her image under the banner of ‘progress’, even when she’s constantly rejecting you and your stupid plans which are really an excuse to get your badly made up face all over the place.
The good guy – Kenshiro (Ken played by Gary Daniels) – loner who wanders about hunched in a ragged cloak, immune to the acid rain, has terrible scars on his torso from where Shin beat him, is generally miserable and who can blame him? He’s gentle, kind, has the ability to fight and heal but there are constant close-ups of his ‘baby blues’ trying to look innocent resulting in an almost cross-eyed effect, he’s slightly open mouthed half the time and very slow to deliver his lines. Wooden about covers it. Much of the acting in general can be described that way with the rest being hammy instead, you know those retro Chinese movies with the bad dubbing and part of the fun is watching their mouths out of sync? This is not fun. And they’re speaking English in the first place.
He’s haunted and hounded by his dead master who wants him to acknowledge his destiny as the bearer of the FotNS and whose not shy of possessing others to convey the message, even a buried skeleton.
The damsel in distress – Julia (played by Isako Washio) – is surprisingly enough the best acted part and the studio did a good job in making her stand out from the rest; she comes across as pure and light but also aloof and timid/frightened though defiant at the same time. She’s mostly dressed in shades of White, delivers her lines in decent time and gives off the aura of the feeling she wants to portray effectively enough even without words. She basically misses Ken and her freedom.
Interestingly enough for all the graphic violence and implied rape in this film her relationships with Ken and Shin are remarkably chaste; her memories with Ken show them sweetly and he evidently appreciates her presence, and despite Shin’s usual ‘if I can’t have you nobody will, especially not him’ and ‘you’re my bird in an ivory tower’ mentality he isn’t ever shown as wanting to force/manipulate her to bed him, but just because it’s not shown…
The targets/poor people – There’s a mix of people of various ages and colours but they are generally seen as wanting to make things better for themselves whether by rebellion, learning to fight or peace treaty. The title of this review refers to a line one of the leaders uses when she argues against trying to assert their rights peacefully and via mutual agreement – when beings are seen as livestock, property, ‘useless eaters’, ‘sheeple’ etc then they are disposable if not recyclable and so they have no place or right to speak let alone argue because they don’t matter and their perspective isn’t worth much.
There’s no point in life without freedom.
Freedom means nothing without life.
Most of the film takes place in the slums, it’s strange because the areas and inhabitants are obviously destitute but sometimes the setting in particular looks surreal – a little too camera ready. Other than that the characters are well portrayed from the big brother and little sister (who is blind here but if I remember correctly deaf in the anime) who are struggling to stay alive and the brother teaching others to fight to the three leaders trying to help in their own way. Ken heals the little sister’s eyes and then can somehow hear her when she’s in trouble. He feels guilty – he opened her eyes only to see what?
The military – Shin’s men – they don’t look like ordinary soldiers, mostly they look like grossly disfigured bikers but it’s their characterization that is the most realistic part of the film for me and the reason I’m giving it two stars instead of one. Their behaviour is nothing short of psychotic and parasitic and accurately portrays people who like to fully control and torture others particularly in the ‘second/successive wave(s)’ of war/battle i.e. after the main conquest is (officially) over and most of the people disarmed and in disarray making those left easier prey to hurt at leisure and for those new(ish) to the winning side it means an opportunity to get their taste of ‘battle’ too. They run rampage through the slums, chase, trap, beat, rape, gang rape, repeatedly rape, set alight, maim, drown, take foodstuffs etc alongside destroying shelters/homes, drinking and trying out new ‘toys’. The only thing missing here is going home as heroes and pretending they never acted dishonourably especially as ‘blowing off steam’ is normal and if they do it to each other it’s ‘occupational hazard’ or if they can’t re-integrate ending up homeless or institution/hospitalized.
Any positive features?
Umm… Umm… The music. Yes the soundtrack is pretty decent but given it’s an action film that’s to be expected but still it’s no magnum opus, it just keeps pace with what’s going on and doesn’t stand out. However, in an action film particularly a fighting flick you’d also expect good fight scenes no? No. Not in this one. There’s one decent fight, otherwise the film is badly choreographed; people react too fast, they move out of the way sometimes launch themselves out of the way or act as if they’ve been struck when they obviously haven’t – that’s partially the camera’s fault but what’s the sound department’s excuse? Why are the sound effects off as well? Even the 70’s action shows got the ‘POW’, ‘WHAM’ et al in the right places. I don’t expect someone to get hit or fall and hear the thud in slow mo. In contrast when combatants are visually hit, like with Ken’s signature pressure point combo, he may as well be hitting a sand bag with a feather – I don’t know if that’s to make the effect of the organs then bursting more gross but it looks and sounds um, put it this way an air kiss would be more meaningful.
That’s not a bad thing par se, I’m not into gore let alone realistic gore but I admire precision and flow in the contortion fields aka gymnastics, dance, yoga and martial arts and whilst the ability is there it’s not well portrayed. The only fighting that is believable are the times Shin’s men are ravaging the people and quite frankly if that were any more realistic it’d be even harder to watch.
Mad Max (1979)
Another post-apocalyptic setting but more deserted and on the road. A gang dominance movie whether official or outlaws. Former policeman turned vigilante Max is out to get those who killed his family.
American Streetfighter (1992) (yes I saw that too, yeesh)
Also starring Gary Daniels – the plots are totally different – AS is about a guy from a bad crowd trying who later becomes a businessman in Hong Kong but has to go back home to the US to save his brother from another bad crowd and drug trafficking. His ex helps him and it pretty much all about the fighting but the bad: choreography, dialogue/dubbing, styling etc is all there.
Mortal Kombat (1995)
It has all the cheese and hammy acting of martial arts movies of this type, it doesn’t follow the source material, Sonya is crap in it, the volume is too low when some of the characters speak although the quips are the best part of the dialogue anyway and the music is the best thing in the film but the locations are stunning and most of the fights are pretty darned watchable. It’s one of those films you shouldn’t really like, but I do 😉