Thursday, August 25, 2011

Muscle Heat (2002)

Japan in the far-flung future of 2009. Apparently, the country has been in a horrible recession for twenty years, and Tokyo's suburbs have become lawless zones where poverty and gang lords rule. A comparatively new drug named Blood Heat makes matters even worse.

The gang of international evildoers selling and producing Blood Heat also make a bit of extra money by organizing cage matches to the death. After all, what's good for Tina Turner must be good for Masaya Kato too. In fact, the whole drug business is going so well for Kato's Rai Kenjin that he's planning on ruling the world some day. These plans also include blackmailing a scientist into science-ing up a new, improved version of the drug that turns the people who take it into insane fighting machines, but since the new version already exists when Rai is working on convincing the scientist, I really don't have a clue what that's all about. Neither does the script.

Anyhow, someone does seem to want to hinder Rai from becoming king of the world and hires former navy seal Joe Jinno (Kane Kosugi), who has suffered some sort of trauma from not shooting children, and former airborne ranger turned cop Aguri Katsuragi (Sho Aikawa!) to (probably) kill Lai. I think. Things don't go too well for our heroes (turns out just running into the bad guy's lair shooting and screaming is not a very good plan), and Katsuragi soon enough finds himself in one of those cage matches to the death against one of Rai's drug-enhanced humans. Hello, Sho Aikawa-style death scene.

Joe, who somehow escaped the gangsters will obviously take revenge for his dead partner, but before he can do that, he'll have to rescue an annoying little kid, befriend Katsuragi's cop little sister (Misato Tachibana), and kick a lot of people in the face. There's also some stuff about corruption and people living underground rising up against their drug lord oppressors, but really, who knows what that's supposed to be about?

In 2002, the dumb 90s action movie was alive and well and living in Japan, and featuring Sho Kosugi's horrible son Kane. Why hire someone who can use more facial expressions than a vacant stare, a vacant glare and a vacantly puzzled look, after all? To be fair, while Kosugi couldn't act his way out of a paperbag, and has the charisma of that paperbag, he is pretty good when doing action sequences. In a lot of action films, that would be more than enough, but Muscle Heat is indulging in the fine art of self-sabotage in two ways: firstly by wasting Kosugi's actual talent on action scenes that aren't really bad, but are bland and choreographed without much imagination. Although the action choreographer comes from China, the film's style seems more oriented on the worst aspects of US-centric martial arts movies of the 80s and 90s (you know, the sort of thing you just might have found Sho Kosugi in). If the best you can do for your final fight is a cage match (the most boring set-up in all of martial arts cinema), you're not really trying.

Muscle Heat's second problem is a bit more likeable - after all, it seems to be born from ambition and not the lack of it. For some reason, Tetsuya Oishi (who wrote the scripts for some good films, too) tries to shoehorn an incredible amount of plot threads into the film. There's the whole economical collapse story, the minor revolution, Kosugi's weird backstory, the attempt to make the film feel "international" by having the characters speak in Cantonese, English and Japanese (which of course backfires by having the actors frequently talk in languages they aren't speaking well at all), the whole drug angle - it's just an incredible amount of stuff that might have amounted to something interesting in a film that put as much effort in developing these threads, or even (fat chance!) turning them into a narrative that makes any sort of sense. Instead, Muscle Heat just heaps stuff upon more stuff without much rhyme or reason, until it nearly collapses under the weight of accumulated nothing.

This is not to say that Ten Shimoyama's (who can do better, too) film is completely without merit: there is - after all - Sho Aikawa chewing scenery for twenty minutes and doing not just one but two of his patented scenes of EXTREME DYING, a lot of the signifiers of cool used so badly they become utterly ridiculous (basically, everything Masaya Kato's character does, especially when it's happening in slow motion, which it frequently does), action movie physics (who knew you can throw a knife so hard your victim will be catapulted back and upwards by it?) and more throw back scenes into everything that already didn't work in action movies during the 90s than one could wish for - all presented with bad camera angles and editing that does not believe in things like cause and effect. Actually, I suspect without Kosugi's black hole-like charisma, I might have enjoyed Muscle Heat a lot more and would now be singing its praises as a ridiculously silly and entertaining piece of retro action cinema.



Tars Tarkas said...

Without this film, Kane Kosugi wouldn't have the experience needed to fill his DOA: Dead or Alive role with such nuance and dignity.

houseinrlyeh aka Denis said...

Nuance and dignity are the only weapons one has against Eric Roberts. Apart from stealing his magic glasses.