12/6/08

Dollar Deals: The Bodyguard (1976) starring Sonny Chiba

For a buck sometimes you get what you pay for. Bad transfers, bad movies, and sometimes even odder things. Tonight's film falls under two of those categories, but I'm not going to say which just yet. I will say it stars one of my favorite actors from the grind house era of Martial Arts the legendary Sonny Chiba. He plays a character oddly enough named Chiba, but some might know him as...

The Bodyguard (1973/1976) starring Sonny Chiba, Judy Lee, Etsuko Shiomi, Tsunehiko Watase, Ryohei Uchida, Yayoi Watanabe, Aaron Banks,  and Bill Louie. Directed by Tatsuichi Takamori, Simon Nuchtern (1976 footage). 

The path of the righteous man and defender is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who in the name of charity and goodwill shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother's keeper, and the father of lost children.

And I will execute great vengeance upon them with furious anger, who poison and destroy my brothers; and they shall know that I am CHIBA the BODYGUARD when I lay my vengeance upon them.

And so begins the tale of Chiba the Bodyguard. After a Japanese mafia Don is gunned down in New York, Chiba who seems to be an international kung fu movie star, is on his way back to Japan to put a stop to the drug trade. The mafia knows this will be bad, and they send a gang of thugs to hijack the plane that Chiba is traveling on. This of course ends up with Chiba kicking their ass right in the aisles of the plane. When they land, he holds a press conference detailing his plan to take down the drug trade which includes offering his services as a bodyguard to anyone with information about the heads of the trade. To prove how serious he is he karate chops a Coke bottle in half and vows to do the same to the drug kingpins.

Later that evening Chiba gets a visit at home from Reiko, a beautiful young woman who is looking for him to make good on his offer. He considers it, but says he needs further proof. Reiko says she has proof in her car, and Chiba sends his sister Maki to get it. Maki however gets more than she bargained for when she gets jumped by a gang of Japanese Cosa Nostra who are laying in wait for Reiko. When Chiba finds his sister naked on the pavement below and hears her story, it's all the proof he needs. 

Chiba moves into Reiko's apartment with her and defends her from all manner of mafia, triads, sofa ninjas, and general thugs who are out to kill her. Soon he learns that she was the girlfriend of the slain Mafia Don and only she knows how and where the drugs come in the country. Conflicted by his promise to protect Reiko and his vow to bring down the drug trade, Chiba tries to find a way to do both as he navigates the seedy underbelly of Japanese crime. 

Film Facts
--The first ten minutes of the 1976 American version of the film contains footage of martial arts champions Aaron Banks and Bill Louie debating the merits of Sonny Chiba's style vs. that of Bruce Lee. It was filmed in the legendary New York Karate School that one was in Times Square. Also in that scene in the background you can see a poster for the grindhouse classic The Tongfather.

--Over the credits there is footage of Mas Oyama leading students in Karate training in the woods. Oyama was Sonny Chiba's first teacher.

--Simon Nuchtern is said to be one of the uncredited directors who worked on the infamous 1976 film Snuff. 

The Bug Speaks
First off let me take a moment to say that Sonny Chiba is a verifiable badass, and for making the Street Fighter films as well as personal favorite of mine Samurai Resurrection,  he very nearly gets a free pass. However this film has some pretty major flaws in both its structure and it's level of entertainment. 

To take it from the top, it was a shock to see the Ezekiel 25:17 lines come up on the screen as the movie began. As anyone who reads my stuff regular knows, I'm a nut for finding those little things that Tarantino lifted out to use in his films. So that was pretty cool unto itself, and it adds a special layer of enjoyment to the film as a whole. The tacked on Karate School scenes at the beginning don't really add anything to the film so much, but I do always like to see footage of NYC in the '70's when it was still the dirty dangerous city of my dreams. 

The plot of the film is where it really suffers. I was surprised as anyone that there was such a thing as the Japanese Mafia, and not only that but that they would go for terrorism to keep a film star from coming to stop the drug trade. Also holding a press conference to announce that you are out to kill drug traffickers seems a bold move, but I suppose Chiba is just that confident. Either that or he had just had an overwhelming need to Karate chop a Coke bottle. 

I must admit this was one of my favorite things in the film, and even though it was an obvious set up I ran the DVD back a couple of times so I could see it again. It is the over the top moments like this, the Ezekiel lines, the chants of "Viva Chiba" over the opening credits,the assassins who appear by cutting themselves free of Reiko's sofa, and  the footage of a criminal chopping apart a monkey head to eat it which will stick with me in the long run. Sadly of those moments three of them happen within the first 10 minutes of the film. While Sonny gets to kick some ass later on most of it is filmed so poorly that it was more confusing to watch than enjoyable. Although there is an eye gouging scene at the end which is almost worth the wait. 

Sonny himself does an admirable job with what he has to work with. As always he is extremely charismatic on film, and I loved the pimpin' suits he wears throughout. After all, he's playing Sonny Chiba so he has to look nice. The real difference between this and other films that I've seen him in is that it doesn't rely so heavily on Chiba's martial arts prowess. Instead the film attempts to be a crime thriller in the vein of some of Bronson's work from the same era. The problem comes with the disjointed storytelling that no amount of acting on Chiba's part can save. 

Judy Lee is serviceable as the titular body to guard. However I wish greater care had been taken to give a little more personality to the bad guys. I never really caught the name of a single one of them, and I don't think I'm alone. IMDB doesn't even have a list of characters that I could guess from. Some of the baddies, especially the monkey eating thug with the samurai meets greaser haircut, I would have liked to seen a bit more fleshed out, but that's probably too much to be asking of a movie like this.

My last gripe is actually out of the film's control. The DVD transfer was just horrible with a very dark and muddy picture. To add insult to injury, there was some nudity in the film, but it had been digitally blurred. So they had the money to ruin boobies, but not the cash to drop on making the dark scenes watchable at all. Needless to say this pissed me off, but then again I dropped all of a buck on it (actually 50 cents, it was on sale) so how mad could I really be.

Even trying not to hold the look of the film against it (which is why I didn't touch on the direction since it was too dark most of the time to really say how it was), the film still misses the mark on most levels. If you are a big fan of Sonny Chiba, I do understand that this film is available with a better (if only slightly) transfer on several box sets. I've looked at these sets and they all seem to have enough stuff I haven't seen to make me want them personally. If the film was cleaned up it might be a better watch, but I still wouldn't expect too much. 

Bug Rating




A Special Note From the Bug

I just learned a bit ago that Forrest J Ackerman passed away December 4th.
The 92 year old kid was still as big a fan of genre films as he was when he first 
started Famous Monsters of Filmland.
He was an inspiration to me just as he inspired legions
of genre fans with his magazines long before blogs and fansites
were just a twinkle in some scientist's eye.
He will forever be missed in the genre film community 
and I for one will miss knowing he's out there. 
R.I.P. Uncle Forry and may they have films that you've only 
dreamed of where you are now.

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