Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Blood and Bone

Michael Jai White has been in some decent movies, like “Exit Wounds” and “Undisputed II”. He’s played Mike Tyson, was in the second “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” movie, and even has a credit from “Saved By the Bell” on his resume, and I mean the real “Saved By the Bell”, none of this “New Class” or “College Years” nonsense. “Black Dynamite” is even pretty awesome, and he was in “The Dark Knight”. My point is that White’s career has been interesting to say the least. For a minute he looked poised to become the next big action star. That never quite panned out, but he’s managed to carve out a nice niche in the direct to video market.

While White has appeared in a wide range of films, his action movies are his bread and butter. And “Blood and Bone” might be the best of the bunch.
For starters, the first shot is an homage to “Kung Fu”, White walking with the sun behind him, cutting a stark silhouette on screen. So right out of the gate I’m on the hook. I’m easy, I’m not too proud to admit that. What follows is my favorite kind of action movie. Badass. The next scene is Isaiah Bone (White) tearing apart a gang of thugs led by street fighting legend Kimbo Slice, in a prison bathroom.
Director Ben Ramsey and writer Michael Andrews know exactly what their audience wants to see. They want to see fighting. And fighting you shall see.
Once out of prison, Bone inserts himself into the street-fighting underworld of Los Angeles, aided by fast-talking, but low level fight promoter, Pinball (Dante Basco, Rufio from “Hook”). Bone isn’t just trying to make a few bucks, he has a definite plan, and it somehow involves James (Eamon Walker, “Oz”). James is a high roller who rose from the streets, but he has greater aspirations. He views himself as a gentleman of sorts, as a sophisticate. He and Bone are similar in many regards. Though they participate in base, violent acts, they do so with a purpose, with a sense of honor, and with the spirit of warriors. Certainly they are a part of the streets, but they also stand apart from them.
Bone is the quintessential mysterious drifter. There is a method behind his actions, as well as something shadowy that drives him. His past, however, is appropriately ambiguous. You are given just enough information to keep you afloat, but no more. The filmmakers use chess as a metaphor throughout, and it is appropriate as Bone is continually plotting, moving, and planning his moves in advance, with an end always in his sight, but hidden from the other players.
“Blood and Bone” has a couple of things that many other movies DTV action movies don’t. First is a story. There is a real, intricate story. It moves and twists and changes, and is revealed over the course of the film. It is not simply a tale of revenge, though that certainly figures in, and the way the plot is structured, it is laid out gradually, over time. The story keeps you interested as much as the regular fight scenes, and is just as engaging.
And holy shit, the characters are interesting. Who saw that coming? They have personalities and demons and desires and drives. They aren’t just stock, cardboard cut outs, they feel like real people in a real story. Even relatively minor characters, like Bone’s landlord Tamra (Nona Gaye), have fully developed personas.
Another thing “Blood and Bone” has that is missing in a lot of action movies that skip the theaters, is quality action. White is a lifelong martial artist with a grasp of a variety of styles, and this movie is really a showcase for his talents and abilities. Beyond White, cast is a who’s who of professional fighters. I already mentioned Kimbo Slice, but it also features Gina Carano, Ernest “Cat” Miller, and the land behemoth known as Bob Sapp. And it isn’t just big name fighters either. Maurice Smith, one of the most decorated living kickboxers, shows up to fight, as well as a slew of lesser-known martial artists. Basically the people who are fighting know how to fight, and they rely on those skills as opposed to things like wires, quick jump cuts, and sped up film. Ramsey wanted to show the action, so much of the camera work harkens back to Bruce Lee films, and other classic martial arts films, where the fighters were simply kept in frame and filmed doing what they do best.
The fight scenes look like actual fights between people who know how to fight. I appreciate that, it is something that is missing across the board modern action cinema. One of my favorite fight scenes of all time is the fight between Steven Seagal and Dan Inosanto in “Out for Justice”, a fight between two highly trained, decorated fighters. “Blood and Bone” is a throwback to that type of late 80s action film, which relied on skill rather than tricks and gimmicks, and it fits nicely into that genre.
With the explosion in popularity of mixed martial arts, there have been a ton of movies seeking to cash in on that, like “Circle of Pain”, “Redbelt”, “Undisputed III”, and others. Some are good, some are unwatchable garbage. Even the fights in other movies, one example being “Universal Solider: Regeneration” (which prominently featured MMA heavyweight Andrei Arlovski), are now being tailored more to that style. While it is definitely of that ilk, “Blood and Bone” is one of the best, succeeding on multiple levels, as well as working independently. You don’t have to be an MMA fan to enjoy it.
Sure, there is some cheesiness to “Blood and Bone”, primarily around the staging of the fights. Some of them look like cut scenes from a “Fast and Furious” knock off, and at one point Bob Sapp does punch a guy so hard he pukes. There is even a clunky, forced romantic interest for a brief moment. Thankfully it goes away quickly, but it is there. But for the most part the problems are easily ignored and don’t distract from the rest of the movie.
I was actually surprised by how much I laughed out loud. There are some clever jokes that occur naturally within the story, and a twisted sense of humor that runs throughout. Seriously, how often to you laugh at a guy squeegeeing hooker blood off of the windshield of his Range Rover? And how can you make a Wang Chung sing-a-long frightening? Ask Eamon Walker, because he does.
“Blood and Bone” isn’t perfect, but if you are a fan of old style action, you should definitely give it a chance. In 1991 this would have stared Wesley Snipes or Jean-Claude Van Damme at the height of their careers, and people would have been psyched about it. “Blood and Bone” is a movie that I will likely watch again, and I suggest you do the same and get psyched about it.

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