Back in the 1990s, a British trade magazine sent me to Los Angeles every November to report on the American Film Market — then mostly an emporium of cheapo genre films, held at Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel. It was the heyday of the straight-to-video actioner and the doors of many sales suites were decorated with posters for kung fu and kickboxing movies that, if their sellers got lucky, would soon fill the shelves of video rental shops from Dubai to Durban.
That action boom has long since faded away, as have many of the Asian production and sales companies I once covered. The genre itself survives, but the socks and chops are now standardly supplemented by gaudy CGI effects the old exploitation outfits could have never afforded.
So Kurando Mitsutake’s “Karate Kill,” a low-budget action movie shot in Japan and the United States with hardly any digital assistance, is an old-school throw-back, right down to the retro poster that prominently features the worked-out body and deadly left fist of mononymous star Hayate.
|Rating||out of 5|
|Run Time||89 mins|
Based in California since 1990, Mitsutake has for much of his career worked on action genre movies, including his 2014 “Gun Woman.” In that title former porn star Asami plays a female assassin who takes extreme measures to eliminate a sadistic killer, beginning with the surgical implantation of lethal weapons in her body. Asami’s action scenes, in which she appears clothed in little more than prop blood, were a big draw for the international festival circuit.
“Karate Kill” is another revenge epic scripted and directed by Mitsutake, if with less nudity and firepower. Instead, most of the action is supplied by Hayate, a karate and parkour master with limited acting experience. Wisely, Mitsutake has given him few lines as Kenji, a stoic martial arts expert who takes various dangerous gigs to finance the education of his younger sister Mayumi (Mana Sakura) in LA. When she suddenly drops out of sight, a worried Kenji boards the plane to check on her, but on arriving he finds the locals less than cooperative.
A few bruising encounters later, he learns that Mayumi has been abducted by Capital Messiah, a cult headquartered in a compound outside El Paso, Texas. Its frizzy-haired, wild-eyed leader (Kirk Geiger) operates a website that offers a crime-for-pay service, with murder, rape and torture all on the menu. Obviously, Mayumi has fallen into evil hands and Kenji will commit any mayhem necessary to rescue her.
That, basically, is the plot, though the action scenes, shot under the supervision of action coordinator Keiya Tabuchi, are anything but perfunctory. Unlike the many fight sequences in recent Japanese films, which are edited to blink-and-you-miss-them bits, the mano-a-mano contests in “Karate Kill” unspool in longer takes that make fakery harder to hide. Hayate rises to the challenge with lethal authority, if with little of the comic showmanship of a Jackie Chan. Harking back to karate’s origins in Okinawa, his fighting style is coiled, explosive and deadly serious.
But a film of karate moves alone, however skilled and realistic, would soon become tiresome to all but hardcore enthusiasts. Fortunately, Kenji also uses his parkour skills to thrillingly vault walls and leap from building to building, with similarly agile enemies in close pursuit. More violent variety is added by Keiko (Asami again), a feisty cult victim who turns avenger and joins Kenji, though her first choice of weapons is not her fists, but a shotgun.
Given that this is America, where guns are ubiquitous, cult compounds included, why doesn’t Kenji follow suit? He has his reasons, though his rationales for unarmed combat feel strained.
That said, in everything from Dean Harada’s thrumming, ominous score to Hayate’s grimly relentless performance, “Karate Kill” recalls the glory days of VHS chop-socky. Just don’t forget to rewind.