Firstly, I’d just like to say thank you to Judrina Kymantas and Petri Entertainment for allowing me early access to an online screener of the Japanese Action/Exploitation film “Karate Kill”, Written and Directed by Kurando Mitsutake (Gun Woman). Karate Kill is about loner and kung fu master, Kenji (played by Hayate) who after discovering that his little sister Mayumi (Mana Sakura) has disappeared in the US, heads to Los Angeles where he’s confronted with a corrupt restaurant owner (Gun Woman’s, Noriaki Kamata) and a mysterious cult called Capital Messiah, led by Vendenski (played by Kirk Geiger). The film also stars former adult star, Asami (Rape Zombie Series and Dead Sushi), Katarina Leigh Waters (of the WWE), Tomm Voss and Toshiya Agata.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve never really been all that interested in the martial arts sub-genre of Action films. It’s not that I can’t appreciate the stunt work or the careful construction of the choreography, it’s just that in what I have seen, the story telling aspect has been well off the mark. Some would argue that’s trivial because the selling point is purely the fighting and perhaps those writers aren’t necessarily out to tell a great story. Call me old-fashioned but I need the narrative, hence why the closest thing to a successful kung fu movie in my opinion is Brett Ratner’s, “Rush Hour” (I know, I know, not a kung fu movie). I’ll assume we’re not counting the cheesy but fun, “3 Ninjas” franchise that I used to watch when I was a kid or even the classic “Karate Kid” films. With all that said, I’m fairly open-minded and with Mitsutake behind it, I was happy to give this one a go. The cinematography is surprisingly good for a film of this nature (given I didn’t know what to expect). There’s plenty of establishing shots that help transition scenes, along with tight framing and an unusual rotating camera shot during one of the fight sequences in the restaurant, that was cool. The soundtrack was another aspect that caught me off guard. There’s a neat keyboard theme at the start that reminded me of some of the music from 2008’s, “Never Back Down”. All of the synth music gives off that intentional mid 80s vibe and there’s even a unique homage to the Western genre, in particular Takashi Miike’s “Sukiyaki Western Django”. The performances from the key cast are mostly pretty good. I liked Asami and Sakura but most notably, Hayate, the lead. This is his first time behind the camera and you wouldn’t know it, so kudos to him.
Kurando’s script has sufficient back story for each of its characters and that’s something you don’t see a lot of in Kung fu films (at least the ones I’ve seen). The bond shared between Kenji and Mayumi, like any brother and sister, is a special one. The film was definitely aided by the inclusion of a few flashback shots to when the siblings were younger, allowing the audience to feel that natural protection from Kenji and chemistry with his sister. The villain of the piece, Vendenski is one of the few Americans in the film (speaking in English) along with his henchmen/women. He, too, is fairly fleshed out in terms of showcasing a supreme mindset over the Capital Messiah and its hapless victims. I wasn’t sure if he was supposed to be an ex-Vietnam vet or not, but there was enough there to see where he was at mentally. He certainly looked the part with the whole DeNiro “Deer Hunter” wardrobe, but the timeline doesn’t add up for any war to come into play. I don’t have much of a body of work to make comparisons but the fight choreography and stunt work in Karate Kill was impressive. What boosts the enjoyment of those action sequences further is the well-timed foley effects, every sound matches the corresponding hit and that’s a rare feat. Karate Kill’s revenge aspect could be akin to what you’d see in the Exploitation genre. Fans of said genre will be pleased to know that there’s adequate nudity in here and some good practical blood and gore. The film has a few darkly comedic moments that are fun but the highlights are a couple of gruesome gags involving a hand smash and an ear rip. There’s also a couple of sword deaths that utilize practical effects too.
Karate Kill contains English subtitles as the primary language spoken is Japanese. The subtitles aren’t always perfect, and in turn, the phrasing can appear a little disjointed. The language barrier sees certain chunks of dialogue feeling as though they’ve been too Westernized. Mitsutake implements the use of some POV cameras (point of view), and surveillance like shots during Capital Messiah’s advance on the restaurant and its employees. The technique is fine and adds another element to the film, but the placement of a number of shots from the staff point of view don’t actually make any sense because they aren’t shown to be wearing cameras. Some of the secondary cast members aren’t quite as consistent in their performances as the leads are, at times even Geiger (as Vendenski) becomes rather cartoonish. The film only runs about 85 minutes (minus credits) but the second half does lose a bit of steam and that’s underlined in the disappointing final showdown between Kenji and Vendenski. The effects quickly turn cheap, due to the excessive amounts of on-screen CG blood spray. On the upside, the body count is plentiful (mostly via gun) and some of the after effect prosthetic work was a welcomed addition, but sadly it doesn’t quite revive that final act. Ever since the likes of extreme filmmakers in Yoshihiro Nishimura (Tokyo Gore Police) and Takashi Miike (Audition and Ichi The Killer) among others, Asian cinema has become somewhat of a benchmark for ambitious practical effects, so it’s a little disappointing to see Karate Kill not live up to its full potential in that area.
Karate Kill isn’t the type of film I’d actively seek out but Mitsutake’s exploitative throwback to kung fu films of the early to mid 80’s turned out to be an entertaining experience. This could be likened to 1983’s “Revenge Of The Ninja”, with a trace of Kurando’s last film “Gun Woman” about it as well. The camera work is pretty solid, the foley crisp and the soundtrack quintessentially 80’s with its driving synth and bass. There’s the odd tip of the hat to the Western genre and its revenge facet, and each of the key characters have enough of an arc to get by. Most of the performances are good, the fight choreography surpassed my expectations and when the practical effects are present, they look pretty impressive. Some of the dialogue is a little clunky and several of the secondary players go in an out of character in places. I think the climax of the film ends on a down note, it’s just too CG heavy given what comes before it. Historically, Asian cinema has set the bar high when it comes to blood flow and this gore hound wasn’t fully satisfied with the result here. All that said, Karate Kill is more than serviceable and fans of the sub-genre will surely enjoy it, especially those fight sequences. I look forward to more extreme film making from our friends in Asia! Keep an eye out for the July, Blu ray release of Karate Kill and feel free to check out the trailer below!
My rating for “Karate Kill” is 6/10