When I was a kid in the 1980s, my only martial arts practice consisted of imitating Bruce Lee’s howls and watching the TV show Sidekicks. To me, the martial arts stars of that era were gods. Steven Seagal definitely ranked near the top in my pantheon of cinematic heroes. My jaw dropped after watching the aikido master play a cop with an attitude in 1988’s Above the Law. I idolized him after he embodied an ex-DEA agent with an attitude in 1990’s Marked for Death. And I had no doubts about his divine box-office talents after his performance as a former Navy SEAL with an attitude in 1992’s Under Siege. But during the ensuing decade and a half, my reverence slowly diminished, and it certainly won’t be renewed after watching Steven Seagal’s latest project, Against the Dark, in which he plays a sword-wielding vampire hunter with, well, an attitude. Don’t get me wrong: This direct-to-DVD effort isn’t boring. It just seems as if no one among the cast or crew tried that hard. The result plays like an extraordinarily average B movie, complete with a small-time budget (reportedly $9 million), a one-location setting (a hospital) and a been-there-done-that plot (Steven Seagal plays the leader of an elite killing squad who must save a group of survivors after a vampire virus decimates society). However, I give Steven Seagal bonus points for trying out a new genre: Against the Dark marks his first foray into horror flicks. He’s still got the same slicked-back hair, expressionless mug and monotone delivery he’s had for the past 21 years, but now he’s hacking up bloodsuckers instead of snapping the wrists of terrorists or tossing gangsters through plate-glass windows. Surprisingly, he doesn’t look out of place among the fangs, guts and gore. He also gets a gold star for finally trying some new fight choreography. Steven Seagal’s biggest contribution to cinematic history will always be that he took what was once thought of as the unfilmable soft style of aikido and made it a thrilling, elbow-shattering, head-tossing method of on-screen fighting. Many of the seventh-degree black belt’s joint locks, bone breaks and throws have since become essential additions to the stunt coordinator’s arsenal. But while icons like Jackie Chan continually strove to reinvent themselves throughout the 1990s, Steven Seagal never graduated beyond his XYZ-with-an-attitude approach. His career peaked with 1995’s Under Siege 2: Dark Territory, and he’s been stuck in the direct-to-DVD market ever since Half Past Dead bombed at the box office in 2002. So far in the 21st century, he’s made a string of forgettable B movies and is better known for endorsing a line of energy drinks and getting curious looks for his blues music and Buddhism. Perhaps recognizing his rigid choreography, yearning for past glory or simply compensating for his aging body, Steven Seagal changed his ways for Against the Dark. He draws from his bokken training and wields a sword. It’s intriguing to watch him handle the mishmash of aesthetics, but it’s too bad he kills each vampire after only a few slashes. It makes the fights too short to enjoy. Even worse, first-time director Richard Crudo (cinematographer of American Pie) and editor Tim Silano muddle the action with too many quick cuts. Thankfully, Steven Seagal’s sidekick Tanoai Reed picks up some of the slack. Tanoai Reed is actually the stunt double and cousin of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. In Against the Dark, he gets a chance to step out of his famous relative’s shadow, playing a vampire-killing workhorse named Tagart. Tanoai Reed’s combat sequences combine street brawling, gunplay and the use of cool bladed weapons that look like a hybrid of a tonfa and a kama. As a talented stunt fighter and competent actor, Tanoai Reed brings much-needed oomph and crispness to the on-screen battles. However, it’s a tad odd that before almost every one of his action scenes, Tanoai Reed’s character is ordered by Steven Seagal to “sweep” a room full of vampires solo. He belongs to an elite squad of vampire hunters, so why not exterminate their prey as a team? From a stunt coordinator’s point of view, it showcases Tanoai Reed’s skills, but from a character-logic standpoint, it’s rather stupid. I’m not sure if Tanoai Reed’s mini suicide missions are a symptom of poor staging by fight coordinators Dickey Beer and Gabi Burlacu, poor directing by Richard Crudo or poor writing by scribe Mathew Klickstein—or a combination thereof. Matthew Klickstein’s screenplay is amazingly predictable—save for one short subplot about a human father caring for his vampire daughter—and doesn’t give the star much to do. Steven Seagal has zero character arc and back story. Then there’s the laughable dialogue. Steven Seagal issues such ridiculously obvious commands as, “Kill anything that looks infected.” In another scene in which his team saves a little boy, he turns to his crew and proclaims for no particular reason: “We’re not here to judge who’s right or wrong. We’re here to decide who lives or dies.” All that does little to elevate Against the Dark beyond its ilk. And that’s too bad for Steven Seagal because although he’s now older, the world’s most famous aikidoka appears to be willing to expand his repertoire. Perhaps he realizes the same thing I did after watching Against the Dark—that he’s but a mere mortal after all. (Patrick Vuong is a freelance journalist, screenwriter and martial artist based in Orange County, California.)
Dr. Craig's Martial Arts Movie Lounge
When The Fast and the Furious (2001) sped into the psyche's of illegal street racing enthusiasts, with a penchant for danger and the psychotic insanity of arrant automotive adventure, the brusque bearish, quasi-hero rebel, Dominic "Dom" Toretto was caustic yet salvationally portrayed with the power of a train using a Vin Diesel engine.
Justin Lin's climb up the Fast & Furious ladder matches the film titles, fast and furious. He's the only director to shoot five sequels (3, 4, 5, 6, 9) with F10 on the way. The resulting action composition in F9: The Last Saga (F9) has been brewing since his intro to Bruce Lee and Lin's early subliminal and now obvious influences from Jackie Chan.
When I first discussed Bruce Lee with the Taiwanese-born, Los Angeles-raised Lin in 1997, he shared, "Whether Asian Americans like it or not, they all have a relationship with Bruce. When I was 10, I was deeply disturbed watching Bruce's Game of Death (1979). There was a guy who vaguely looked like Lee interspersed with shots of the real Lee, right down to a photo of Lee pasted onto a mirror to make us believe the guy in front of the mirror was Bruce. Yet when I first saw Bruce Lee on screen, I felt his power, he gave me the strength to strive for something. After learning about the film's freaky news, I thought, how in the hell did the double get that job?"
Lin addressed this question in his first martial arts film, Finishing the Game (2007). Co-starring Sung Kang, Lin also hired fight choreographer Don Thai, who at the time was a close associate and one of Jackie Chan's protégés.
Years earlier, Jackie Chan's Opera brother Corey Yuen directed Jason Statham's breakout martial arts film Transporter(2002). Around the same time, Jackie Chan's stunt double/fight choreographer, Andy Cheng, was priming Dwayne Johnson in Chan's style of action too as the fight coordinator on Johnson's first martial arts film Rundown (2003).
The Fast & Furious films began as street drag-racing movies, perhaps influenced by the demented driving antics of Steve McQueen in real life and in his movie Getaway (1972). Yet with the addition of Dwayne Johnson as CIA agent Luke Hobbs in Fast Five (2011), whose job was to track down and capture Dom, the franchise morphed into a car-llection of visceral flicks filled with over-the-top, outrageous, literal high-octane car stunts.
Then just as you think there's no more juice in the engines, apart from flashing red buttons connected to newfangled fuel-injection systems, which are attached to nitrous oxide canisters capable of giving short bursts of Star Wars light speed, Furious 7 (2015) arrived. F7 upped the martial arts ante by casting legitimate martial artist Jason Statham as the rogue assassin Deckard Shaw who ran pugilistic mayhem around Dom and Hobbs.
Yet with F9, Lin translated Lee's power into his action sequences and saw how Chan's fights used the tangible qualities of space and how Chan continually transforms it from the confines of small rooms, alleys or a high-rise's narrow ledge to the vastness of a castle, mountaintop, or rooftops of big towering buildings. Like Chan, Lin achieves these transformations via extended chase sequences where each unpredictable redefinition of space adds to the scene's momentum by creating a giddy farce. As his characters move through new environments, they confront new circumstances and possibilities.
With F9, Lin goes beyond these confines. Dom learns that his long-lost renegade brother Jacob (John Cena) has become a deadly assassin who's in cahoots with Dom's mortal enemy Cipher from The Fate and the Furious (2017) and her new psychotic partner Otto. Their aim is to find two halves of a top-secret gadget that can control the world's security network. It's time for Dom and his speedster band of brothers/sisters to unite to save the world from this terminally ruthless trio while dealing with family secrets.
In 1999, Diesel told about his bouncer and boxing background in New York, and his love for the 1970's Shaw Brother kung fu films adding with a bellowing calm voice, "It would've been cool to be in one of those movies, the weapons, the wires, the fights."
By a strange twist of fate, Diesel is doing a kung fu film that's as close to being a 1970s, Shaw Brothers wuxia movie than he could ever have imagined. His weapon of choice isn't fists, knives or kung fu, but a 1968 Dodge Charger with car fufight choreography.
Dom can maneuver his cars to block, deflect and parry oncoming forces of sideswiping and head on attacks from other autos, armored vehicles, giant transporter trucks and even a flying wing. His car fu has skills that can catch and intercept flying members of his team out of mid-air death plummets that are more radical than a square route.
The wire-fu car fu is as outrageous as it sounds. In one moment Dom can be speeding along then he pulls of this dodgy move that's akin to maniacal spider falling from a ceiling toward your unsuspecting head on the end of a single strand of silk thread.
Stunt coordinator J.J. Perry who was into Hong Kong stylized action since his beginnings, choreographed a handful of unique fights that are well worth the watch and there are two particular fights that take into account the yin and yang balance of combat.
One is Dom's rough and tumble, smash and crash brawl as he becomes a human muscle car in a wide-open underground warehouse where he takes on droves of heavily armed punch and crunch security forces. The opposing energy is a powerful light focusing on the F9's fighting women, Letty, Mia and newcomer Elle taking on a team of marauding mercenaries within the tight confines of a small Tokyo apartment. It's a close quarters, tag-team action fray using medium shots, where each lady does 2-6 techniques per take.
In Chinese numerology, nine represents longevity and so it's no wonder that F9 will continue the franchise's staying power where breaking the speed limit is a way of life.
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Eighteen-year-old Anastasija Zolotic became the first American woman to win Olympic gold in taekwondo since the martial art earned full medal status in 2000 when she defeated Tatiana Minina 25-17 in the finals of the 57 kg category Sunday in Japan. Dana Hee, Arlene Limas and Lynnette Love had previously won gold for the U.S. back in 1988 when taekwondo was still considered a demonstration sport. On the men's side, Ulugbek Rashitov of Uzbekistan won the 68 kg class over Britain's Bradly Sinden 35-29.
In judo, host country Japan added to it's gold count as Uta and Hifumi Abe made Olympic history becoming the first siblings to win gold medals on the same day. Uta Abe captured the women's 52 kg division defeating France's Amandine Buchard by pin in overtime. Then Hifumi Abe earned the men's 66 kg gold hitting an osotogari, outside leg reap, for a half-point to defeat Georgia's Vazha Margvelashvili.
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In a blood-soaked, action-packed, five-round battle, former bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw returned after a two year suspension for performance enhancing drugs to win a split decision over Cory Sandhagen at UFC on ESPN 27 Saturday in Las Vegas.
Both fighters kept up a brutal pace with the action heating up early in the first round as Sandhagen went for a flying knee. Dillashaw caught him in the air and took him down. A back and forth battle ensued with Sandhagen regaining his feet only to have Dillashaw work behind him where he landed knees to the hips and legs. It was a position he was able to consistently achieve throughout the bout, which may have proven the difference in a close contest.
Dillashaw suffered a bad cut to the eye in the second round that bothered him the rest of the fight but he never slowed his pace continuing to pressure Sandhagen for all five rounds mixing his clinching and go behinds with hard leg kicks. The narrow victory now places Dillashaw back in title contention.