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Monday, May 18, 2015

Rage of Honor (1987) review


Sho Kosugi (Shiro Tanaka), Lewis Van Bergen (Havlock), Robin Evans (Jennifer), Chip Lucia (Dick), Richard Wiley (Ray)

Directed by Gordon Hessler

The Short Version: Hot off of PRAY FOR DEATH (1985), Sho Kosugi, the Japanese John Wayne of ninja cinema, is back in ninja action against a South American drug lord who has killed his partner and kidnapped his girlfriend. He never dons the familiar ninja regalia, but does wear black 90% of the time. Tons of action, lots of camo ninjas packin' heat, and wacky weapons in what amounts to the most expensive ninja movie Godfrey Ho, Joseph Lai, and Tomas Tang never made.

Shiro, Ray, and Dick are federal agents out to bust Havlock, a South American drug kingpin and martial artist, by any means necessary. After going against protocol and seizing a vast quantity of his heroin aboard a boat, Ray gets careless, ending up captured and tortured to death by Havlock. Shiro swears revenge, quits his job and pursues Havlock only to learn that some of his superiors have a vested interest in the drug business. 

Trans World Entertainment co-produced with Negocios Cinematograficos to fashion their second, and last Sho Kosugi flick. Radically different from the previous years PRAY FOR DEATH (1985), RAGE OF HONOR jettisons the ninja styled Paul Kersey character of that picture to turn Sho into a ninja styled James Bond on this one. The major difference is that Sho never dons the familiar Shinobi attire. He compensates by carrying an assortment of bladed implements tucked away within his clothes that can't hide the fact that Sho is indeed channeling his inner shadow warrior. Kosugi designed the weapons himself, as well as choreographing the action sequences. 

RAGE is a bit of a "family" affair in its cast and crew. Gordon Hessler returns from directing Kosugi in PRAY, and adding cinematographer Julio Bragado (having worked with Hessler on 1984s CALIFORNIA COWBOYS). Hessler, a veteran Fantasy and Horror director in the 60s and 70s, had a similar relationship with Sho Kosugi that J. Lee Thompson had with Charles Bronson. He also directed Kosugi in three of the thirteen episodes of THE MASTER (1984) television series starring Lee Van Cleef. Hessler's last film as director was a Sho Kosugi movie titled JOURNEY TO HONOR (1991).

Going back to Bragado, the photography is one of RAGE's major assets. In the last half, Bragado captures some truly stunning South American locales that greatly enhance the low budget (low for a late 80s actioner). Some of these shots, particularly the waterfalls, add to the production value. It's just one aspect of this movie that displayed the evolution of Sho Kosugi as an Action Hero. Sadly, his career was winding down by this point after enjoying nearly a decade of success.

Unfortunately, the action sequences suffer the same fate as most American martial arts pictures of the day. There's very few master shots and far too many close ups. The makers did seem aware of the modern, more edgy style of Hong Kong cinema by throwing in a few crazy shots of Sho (well, his stunt double) flipping in mid-air while firing guns on his targets. The trick of him leaping over a moving vehicle from PRAY FOR DEATH is repeated here, too. The choreo is average at best, but is kept lively by some exaggerated scripting ideas that could have repeated the disaster of 9 DEATHS OF THE NINJA had they been in lesser hands. Much of the martial arts action is upstaged anyways, by a high quotient of explosions and car stunts towards the end when the film goes into Action Hero overdrive mode.

As for RAGE, it's obvious the makers were wishing to go in a different direction. The ninja formula had been replaced by kickboxing flicks, and was all but extinct by the dawn of the 90s. While not a blatant ninja movie, the stealth assassins are definitely present on two different occasions. Sho tangles with ninja in an Argentinian jail; then during the out of control finale, he engages a chopper full of Shinobi decked out in camo and sporting machine guns and flame-throwers! Apparently cognizant of the preponderance of crappy ninjer movies assaulting video store shelves from hack director Godfrey Ho and even hackier producers Joseph Lai and Tomas Tang, Trans World shows them how it's done. 

Aside from his slightly different character, Sho Kosugi is essentially playing himself again. Sho gets to smile a bit more than usual, and, in opposition to his inevitable ninja rage, even gets to show a softer side with his onscreen girlfriend played by Robin Evans. Little is done with this relationship, resulting in no audience investment when Sho must rescue her. The frequent action supplements this lack of characterization (not that there's ever been much in Kosugi's movies to begin with). RAGE OF HONOR does feature some of Sho's most varied action. It was his first time handling a gun in both his life and in the movies.

Lewis Van Bergen is the head psycho and not at all memorable as a villain, at least in this movie. Unlike the sadistic Limehouse Willie (James Booth) of PRAY FOR DEATH, the script tries to pass Havlock (Van Bergen) off as a martial artist. The result is only slightly more believable here than Sho's climactic duel with Limehouse. The editing does well to mask the limitations in the climactic duel, but the action mostly pales in comparison to earlier Kosugi classics like his magnum opus, REVENGE OF THE NINJA (1983). Moreover, the action gets so crazy during the last half with machine gun-toting ninjas and a stunt-filled action sequence inside an abandoned factory, you forget about the Havlock character altogether. If nothing else, Kosugi wasn't shy about letting the villain beat him up to try and make the fight exciting.

If you're a fan of the actor, and used to seeing Sho dressed as a ninja slicing up his foes, RAGE OF HONOR will be a hard sell. He's still playing a ninja, but without the suit, albeit with flashier toys than before (the explosive shuriken is a hoot!). Compared to some of his previous movies, the violence is really tame amounting to a few squibs here and there, and some shuriken lodged into necks. Today it would probably get by with a PG-13. Occasionally over the top and brimming with unrealized potential, with a little more money behind it, RAGE OF HONOR could have been the start of a reinvigorated career for Sho Kosugi in America.

This review is representative of the MGM DVD. Specs and Extras: Fullscreen (opening and ending credits 1.85:1); theatrical trailer.

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