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Sunday, September 18, 2011

Reel Bad Cinema: Soul of Chiba (1977) review


Sonny Chiba (The Man With No Name), Yasuyoshi Shikamura (Someone/Sam Wan?), Tadashi Yamashita (Sho Kam), That Uncredited Guy (Tai Kam), Etsuko Shihomi (Lee Fa), Bolo Yueng (Ni Pol), Liu Ya Ying (That Diamond lovin' Lady), Fang Yuan (Jen Sheng Kam)

Directed by Yukio Noda (a Chan Tung Man is given sole directorial credit here)

"I cooked supper! It's a lovely's a grilled parrot!"

The Short Version: You'd probably never expect to hear Abbott & Costello and Sonny Chiba in the same sentence, but this movie is a grab bag of snickers derived from what could be described as some long lost routine for the "Who's On First?" comedy duo. Chiba plays a drug addicted kung fu man on a mission to find "Someone", the murderer of his master. Bronson Lee, himself is an undercover cop who features in the films other plotline. Overall it's an absolute bonkers movie that features Chiba doing an Electric Jig in spandex and a fishnet top and bottom, battling spiritual boxers possessed by monkey's and battling the most grossly underfunded drug cartel lorded over by a balding Thai guy who loves to laugh...a lot. If you ever wanted to see Chiba do a HK style kung fu'er, this is it, unfortunately.

A kung fu student wanders Thailand in search of his master's killer who was murdered by one of his pupils. The determined and now drug addicted warrior aligns himself with an undercover narcotics agent (how's that for irony!) to uncover the truth behind the kung fu instructors death which has ties to a Thai drug cartel.

More welcome, if blatant bootleggery from the folks at Rarescope and BCI comes this fruit loop miasma of martial malcontentment allegedly produced by both Sonny Chiba and Tadashi Yamashita. If the thought of a Japanese-Hong Kong co-production set in Thailand wasn't insane enough, we get a VHS print with Italian credits and a German onscreen title. The Japanese version on the DVD, while subtitled, is missing the damn Japanese credits! Instead we get the ENGLISH CREDITS and ENGLISH DIALOG inserted into the movie! This is truly an international production, in every way. SOUL OF BRUCE LEE, or whatever the hell you want to call it, is quite simply the single most playfully demented Sonny Chiba movie ever made and that's saying something considering his name and the word crazy often share a symbiotic relationship.

If only the Cobra Kai had seen this movie, THE KARATE KID (1984) might have had a different ending.

The plot is typical student avenges the death of his master spiel, only this time, there's a major sting at the end that both makes absolutely no sense and flies in the face of about a couple thousand other kung fu flicks that had erupted before and since. The morality and irony of the final scenes are about the only truly capital moments in this hopelessly below average fist and kick fest. The finish also manages to seriously cripple the mood by showing Chiba having suddenly sprouted a mustache in a matter of seconds before his face returns to a clean, smooth surface again. While the credits are little help, it's safe to assume there was no continuity person on the set.

Now THIS is how you take over a drug syndicate--with ease. The Corleone's and Tony Montana's of the world could learn a lot from this guy.

In between the Chiba storyline, there's this other plot about an undercover cop working for a sleazy drug trafficker who laughs more than the average Asian villain in these movies. An aspiring villain-to-be named Tai Kam arrives post credits and in a matter of seconds, takes over the "organ-eye-zation". It's never made clear if Tai Kam is a real bad guy or not, but we do learn he's Sho Kam's (Yamashita) missing brother. He's not in the movie long enough to care aside from wondering why in the hell he's there in the first place. Making both the Chiba and Yamashita characters long lost brothers makes more sense than introducing someone (no, not THAT Someone, but someone else) then discarding them some fifteen minutes later. But then nothing makes sense in this movie. The script has far too many characters with far too many backstory's for the filmmakers to juggle between kung fu fights. Amidst all the insanity, there's actually some good things in the script which would have made a better mini series than movie.


Master Jen Kam: "When a man concentrates his life force, his body becomes a machine of incredible power!"

Sonny Chiba: "But how do I become like that?"

Master Kam: "By thinking of nothing. Because nothing will become of nothing!"

Sonny Chiba may have smoked the dope as an undercover cop in YAKUZA DEKA (1970), but here, he's addicted to some sort of "secret potion" he takes when he gets the shakes. You could also say that everyone involved in this movie was smoking something during the shoot. Outside of the kinetic and brutal fight sequences, it's apparent the crew was clueless as to how to tell this story. It's not surprising considering Yukio Noda is often tagged with directing this mess even though the only director credited is a Chan Tung Man. Incidentally, Noda and Chiba teamed up again the same year to produce the more focused GOLGO 13: KOWLOON ASSIGNMENT. Going back to Chiba's onscreen drug problem, it's not revealed what the drug is he's addicted to, just only that the undisclosed years of tracking his master's murderer has turned him into a drug addict who does his health no favors by hooking himself up to a machine that sends high voltage through his body. Adding to the chaos of the production, Chiba's character isn't even given a name.

I wonder if MACGYVER ever thought of this?

Speaking of names, the dubbed version is a wealth of comedy in that it features a running gag that inadvertently emulates the famous Abbott & Costello "Who's On First?" routine. Former Shaw Brothers bit player and choreographer, Yasuyoshi Shikamura--aside from being one of the least imposing lead villains in martial arts cinema--plays this guy named Someone.--Of course he does, who is he? Someone. I know that, but who does he play? He plays Someone. Sonny Chiba is looking for him. Looking for who? He's looking for Someone. I know that, but who is the guy he's looking for? That guy, Someone.--This leads to a number of hilarious lines of dialog such as when Chiba asks his dying master who stabbed him and his teacher says, "...It was...someone..." Some of the other great lines are listed below...

Chiba: "Do any of you know this man? His name is Someone."

Chiba: "Someone! I'm gonna kill you!"

Chiba: "I can't win! I'm never gonna beat Someone!"

Chiba: "Tell me quickly! Where is Someone?!"

I suppose it's possible the guy's name could be "Sam Wan", but the dubbing sounds like "Someone".--Who does it sound like? Someone, the guy in the movie. You don't know his name? Yeah, someone. So you don't know his name? Yeah, someone. Who?!?!? Someone, the guy in the movie.--See where this is going? Even funnier, on the Japanese track everybody says it like, "Samu-one". Whatever the case, I thank the scriptwriter (if they even had one) for concocting such a kooky name for Sonny Chiba's nemesis.

For all the female Asian action fans out there, if you were ever curious about Chiba's stash...

But seriously, this is one of Chiba's least impressive performances despite the unusual character traits and the impressive fight sequences. If not for the frequent action, this movie would have little outside of the hilarious dubbing to make it mildly watchable. The term 'Chopsocky' offends me especially when it's applied to good martial arts films. But there's a clutch of films that personify that terminology and this is one of them. Reportedly Sonny Chiba and Bruce Lee had been in discussion to do a film together earlier in the decade, but the 'Little Dragons' death in 1973 ended that dream project. Whether that proposed project would have looked anything like this is debatable, yet a modicum of the spirit of Lee hovers over this movie especially when Chiba is seen training with a Shock Therapy device while wearing his fishnet top from THE EXECUTIONER (1974) and spandex shorts, his buttocks covered by a pair of fishnet breeches of all things.

"There's no more time for talk. Let's just say I don't want you to die. I fear for you...I'm worried about you..."--Tadashi Yamashita reveals some man-love in SOUL OF CHIBA.

Tadashi Yamashita (SHINOBI, SWORD OF HEAVEN, BRONSON LEE CHAMPION, AMERICAN NINJA) embarrasses himself when he's not kicking ass onscreen. Thankfully, he does a lot more of the latter than the former. If nothing else, it's refreshing to see two iconic martial arts stars sharing the screen together as well as being protagonists. It allows them both ample opportunities to show off their skills in a string of kung fu/karate fights--the one area where the film never missteps. Yamashita had his own KARATE trilogy the first of which was released in the US in an edited form under the wonderfully titled BRONSON LEE, CHAMPION (1974) directed by none other than that Nipponese madcap Yukio Noda. Yamashita is still one of the most highly respected martial artists on the planet owning dojo's all over the world as well as being President of both a Karate and Kobudo Association in Japan and America.

Bolo's character had his tongue cut out, but miraculously it's grown back

Bolo left his 'No Look' style back in Hong Kong and unlike his hometown movies, he gets a nicely vicious fight sequence here.

Bolo Yeung--who does about as much as he did in ENTER THE DRAGON--plays this character whom the dubber pronounces Ni Pol (Nepal?). In a flashback we learn that Bolo had been captured by Laughing Drug Ring Guy (no name is given to him, either) who commands his tongue be cut out. By the end, his tongue must have grown back as Bolo sticks it out a few times during his ferocious fight with Yamashita. Oddly, Bolo's "No Look Style" is not seen here at all. I waited breathlessly for a shot of Bolo blocking and attacking while simultaneously turning his head away from the action, but it was never to be.

Etsuko "Sue" Shihomi is as fiesty and beautiful as ever in a role that's all in a flashback where she plays a Thai girl that nurses Chiba back to health after he's quickly trounced by Someone.--Who is it that beats up Chiba? The guy in the movie. Yeah, who is it, what's his name? Someone, the main villain. Well who does Chiba play? I don't know, he plays somebody.--Shihomi's moves in her couple of moments to shine (sparring with Chiba in one and battling the Thai version of the Village People in the other) are as impressive as the main stars. It's a shame she doesn't get a better fight with the scrawny lead villain whose name shall go unmentioned from here on out.

The Thailand locales are attractive and add some production value to this wacky movie and one or two stunt shots are impressive including one where a guy leaps from one hotel level to the next. Laughing Drug Ring Guy's gang is the most impoverished bunch this side of The Orphans, the lower level street gang seen in the uber classic THE WARRIORS (1979). For a drug syndicate, the mob that attacks our heroes at the end seem financially burdened as only about three guys have a gun, a few more carry a knife or sword while the bulk of the jeans and T shirt bunch get nothing.

The music (whomever the composer happened to be) is really good even though outside of some whistling, the same theme is heard over and over. The main theme heard during the beginning when Chiba embarks on his quest drinking and drugging his way across Thailand captures a mood that the rest of the movie fails to capitalize on. Japanese action movies can generally always be counted on to create some great cues with their unmistakable marriage of a horn section with an Ella Dell'Orso imitator. While I would surely label this as the worst Sonny Chiba movie ever (even though the man still has a slew of work that remains unreleased on DVD), it's not without some (de)merits as utterly ridiculous and unintentionally goofy as they may be. The entertainment world can only be a better place with more Chiba in the marketplace.

This review is representative of the Rarescope/BCI DVD

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