Thursday, June 2, 2016

White Tiger (1996)

Australian Mike Ryan (Gary Daniels) and his best buddy Josh (John Kirkconnell) are part of a raid on triad-connected drug kingpin Tang. Unfortunately, things go horribly wrong, for instead of raiding a major drug deal, the DEA step right into a minor drug war. A guy called Victor Chow (the inevitable Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) is hard at work at a bit of a revolution in the triad drug biz, you see. He has developed some sort of super drug the triad elders aren’t too fond of and is planning to murder his way to selling it, and the DEA raid and his ambush on (dressed up as a deal with) Tang are happening right at the same time. Oh, and Chow’s pretty crazy.

In the ensuing chaos – and certainly also thanks to Mike’s unwillingness to wait for backup – Chow kills Josh and escapes. Since the whole operation has to be written off as a fiasco, his boss wants to send Mike back to Australia, but our hero does of course no such thing as going home. Instead he tries to infiltrate the triad underworld of the local Chinatown. Which is to say, he goes into nightclubs and asks around for Chow, perhaps in the hopes he’ll attract unwilling attention, or perhaps because he’s not the brightest bulb in the chandelier.

Be that as it may, soon enough, Mike annoys the very short-fused Chow enough he is willing to sacrifice his pet corrupt cops in a murder attempt that quickly turns into a frame-up job on Mike when our hero turns out to be a bit more resilient than expected. Now, Mike is hunted by the police as well as by Chow’s people. His only help is the mysterious Jade (Julia Nickson) who may or may not have connections to Chow.

I have to admit, I am not the biggest fan of Australia’s very own Gary Daniels. He’s a bit wooden an actor even by low budget martial arts movie standards for my tastes, I don’t think he’s terribly charismatic, and while he’s certainly a more competent screen fighter than Joe Normal could ever be, there are dozen guys on his level, some of whom are somewhat better actors, somewhat more charismatic, or just luckier when it comes to their choice of films. This doesn’t mean I hate the guy – he’s not Steven Seagal after all – but it doesn’t exactly make me jump for joy when I read his name on a DVD cover.

Fortunately, Richard Martin’s White Tiger is one of the better Daniels vehicles I’ve seen, clearly attempting to orient itself on Hong Kong’s heroic bloodshed films. It’s rather good at that too, trying to add a bit more background to most characters than typical in US low budget action movies, and certainly having learned different lessons from the way Hong Kong action looks than “just add slow motion and pigeons”. It’s a bit of a shame that Daniels’s Mike is the big exception in the added background department, but then, he’s no Chow Yun-Fat, and the film might just be keeping with what he can do. Certainly, Daniels can do what the film asks of him well enough, throwing himself in all the right poses, usually making the appropriate faces, and looking good kicking ass. While I’m criticizing, I also would have wished the film had told us about the shared past between Jade and Chow earlier, had made clear exactly how crazy Chow is earlier, and had done more with the whole “cop has to ally himself with the triads angle”. Basically, what an actual heroic bloodshed movie would have done.

The action’s fun though: directed with an eye on readability, well – if not incredibly well – choreographed and providing a lot of variety too. The latter is more important for an action movie than quite a few directors in the genre seem to realize, for it is all well and good if you can show us two guys kicking each other in the face, but unless you put these guys in different environments, or even use other kinds of violence, even the best choreographed face kicking gets old when it is repeated too often.

While it’s certainly easy to imagine what White Tiger could have done better – or in this case, really done more or done deeper – there’s also no denying this is a very fun little flick, showing Daniels and everyone involved from their best sides and providing more than just the mandatory amount of fisticuffs, face-kicking, gunplay and explosions.

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