March 7th, 2014

THE POWER OF AIKIDO (1975) ****

The Power of Aikido is not only a great Kung Fu movie, but a great movie; period. It is full of rich characters, terrific fight scenes, and an involving plot line. In fact, it has more plot in its 82 minute running time than most television shows have in a season. But the story is never jumbled, and it flows easily, thanks to its complicated, well-defined characters.

I can’t really do an accurate plot description or I’d be here all day. All you need to know is that this guy gets his ass whooped by Sonny Chiba. This spurs him to go and learn various martial arts skills so he can combine them and use them during their rematch. However, Chiba would rather just hang out with his terminally ill wife. Various complications occur (including the suicide of Chiba’s brother), which eventually leads to another showdown between the two.

The plot is a lot more nuanced than that, and if I were to give you more than just the broad strokes, I’d be doing you a great disservice. The film is richly textured with plot that is in some ways reminiscent of a Zatoichi movie. It’s also filled with characters that are neither bad nor good; but are filled with varying shades of gray. Characters that initially seem to be kindhearted gradually show their true colors, and some characters that at the outset seem like assholes prove themselves to be upstanding citizens. And the mutual respect that grows between Chiba and his adversary is well-earned.

Plus, Sonny Chiba is a sheer treat to watch in this. He exhibits a physicality here that few of his peers possessed. There’s just this violent poetry to his movements that is fascinating to watch. Even in a simple scene where he jumps from the front of a wagon to the back, his movements are just breathtaking.

If you’re a fan of Sonny Chiba, drop whatever it is you’re doing and go watch The Power of Aikido; you can thank me later.

AKA: The Defensive Power of Aikido.

JACKIE CHAN: THE KUNG FU YEARS (2004) **

First we see footage of a young Jackie Chan fighting some dudes with spears in front of a red background. Then we get a brief biography of the man before being treated to several clips from various Jackie Chan movies. Some of the footage I recognized (like the Fearless Hyena movies), others I did not. I wish they had been a bit more consistent when it came to telling you which movie the particular clip came from.

The print is pretty bad, and some of the scenes are either too dark or pretty washed out. And some go on way too long. I guess I would’ve felt differently if the footage was new to me. But a lot of the footage, I’ve already seen (there are long passages from Shaolin Wooden Men), so it all feels kinda “been there, done that” from where I'm sitting.

There are still some highlights here; like when he fights off a creepy clown-faced guy. But while the film shows off his fighting abilities, it misses the point of Jackie Chan completely. It never really shows him being the likeable, goofy, gifted physical comedian we know and love.

Jackie Chan: The Kung Fu Years almost plays like a Bruceploitation flick, except, you know… with Jackie Chan. If you just want to see a bunch of random scenes from Jackie Chan movies haphazardly compiled together, you might enjoy it. People expecting anything more than that are bound to be disappointed.

DIRECTOR SPOTLIGHT: STANLEY KUBRICK

SPARTACUS (1960) ***

Kirk Douglas stars as Spartacus, a cantankerous slave who is bought and sold to fight in the gladiator pits. Some visiting hotshots want to see a to-the-death fight and they watch Spartacus duke it out with another gladiator (Woody Strode). When he refuses to kill Spartacus, he is promptly executed. Then, Spartacus learns that his girlfriend (Jean Simmons) is going to be sold, and he stages a revolt. He eventually leads a march on Rome and becomes a thorn in the side of the Republic.

Spartacus is an epic and it has an epic running time of 188 minutes to go along with it. It’s probably about an hour longer than it really needed to be (the middle hour is particularly draggy), but there are plenty of good moments along the way. Whenever Douglas is battling it out or rallying the troops, the movie is quite enjoyable. (The scene where’s he whimsically wondering where the wind comes from; less so.) When the focus shifts away from Spartacus, the flick loses a lot of steam. (The scenes of the Roman politicians are pretty dull.)

Douglas is very good as the rugged Spartacus. He particularly excels when he’s brashly defying those who once kept him in chains. And Peter Ustinov is a lot of fun as the wily slave owner. The rest of the cast is full of great actors (Laurence Olivier, Tony Curtis, John Ireland, Herbert Lom, etc.), although they sorta get lost in the shuffle.

Since Stanley Kubrick was directing this as basically a work-for-hire job, it’s lacking the artistry you’d normally associate with his work. The film was a massive undertaking, and was years in the making, so I’m sure Kubrick probably didn’t have time to infuse the flick with his usual sensibilities. Because of that, Spartacus is more of a Kirk Douglas movie than a Stanley Kubrick one. That’s not saying it’s “bad” or anything, it just doesn’t inspire the same kind of awe that his later works contain.