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Home » Culture and Criticism

Chop Sucky: The Sonny Chiba Double Feature

Submitted by on March 28, 2011 – 12:04 AM3 Comments

I'd gotten used to thinking of Sonny Chiba movies as ponderous, shadowy wastes of time, but it occurred to me recently that maybe I remembered them unfairly. It's Chiba, for God's sake; it's not all brooding in doorways and no fighting, right?

No, not exactly, but revisiting the Chiboeuvre was a mistake. I had it right the first time, at least according to the two flicks I sat through over the weekend.

The Bodyguard isn't merely boring; it's inexplicable as well. The "plot" isn't that hard to understand — until you think more deeply about it for even 30 seconds (Why is Chiba challenging the Mafia at a press conference? Why is the Mafia operating in Japan in the first place? Why is Chiba's character named "Chiba"?), and you don't have much choice, as there's little fighting to distract you, and the handful of fight sequences don't even qualify as sequences. The camera zooms in on Chiba's eyes three times in a row; the Foley design indicates that Chiba has punched a baddie, although it's shot in a confusing Batman-reboot style that forces you to rely on audio cues, so you don't necessarily see it happen; the baddie dies. Occasionally, there is a leaping kick, but the same amateurish shot-making pertains, and a full 90 percent of the film is padded out by meaningless transitional scenes that most movies would pan across on their way somewhere else: nightclub sequences peopled by off-putting and sweaty stereotypes; poorly blocked handheld pursuits up parking-structure ramps to drug meets. I counted three lens flares in under a minute.

I watch a lot of martial-arts movies, and to say that they lack narrative nuance is an understatement, but said understatement, like kung-fu narratives themselves, is, with rare exceptions, beside the point. Any given Shaolin McGuffin-san kung-fu plot exists solely to position the star against large quantities of fightable opponents, repeatedly and at speed, and you have to judge pictures in the genre by that standard, versus that of a traditional drama. The dubbing is frequently bad, the acting pathetic (when you can even tell), the hairstyles dated, but unless a non-fight element of a kung-fu movie is bad in a unique way, you don't really notice, or at least you wouldn't consider it worth mentioning.

But you don't notice because you came for the fight, and despite the universal fear/regard in which his character is held, Chiba doesn't really fight. One punch is not a fight; a brief flurry of kicks, during which the camera is pointed at Judy Lee instead of at Chiba while she makes farty faces, is not a fight, and neither is a talent for yanking his dipshit charge and her sixteen layers of Cherries in the Snow lipstick behind various gunfire-proof objects. Remember Woody yelling at Buzz, "You! Are! A! Toyeeeeeee!"? This is how I felt watching The Bodyguard: "You! Are! A! Black beeeeeelt!" Chiba obviously knows how to fight, and has charisma for weeks — wardrobe stuffed him into the '70s version of Kirk's gangster suit from that Trek episode where they went to '30s Chicago, and didn't let him wear underpants underneath it either, evidently (just trust me), and in a few scenes his hairpiece seems like it's on backwards, and I'd still knock you down to make out with him.

But if I want to spend ninety-plus minutes with a stone fox who isn't going to punch anyone, I'll watch Ocean's 11 again, noam sayin'? You want to do a broody, artsy, homage-to-The Godfather thing, feel free, but you'd better have a seventeen-on-one melee in there in which the hero fights while walking on his hands.

The best scene in the movie is the first five minutes, during which, bizarrely, two American dudes face off at a Times Square dojo, one in Bruce Lee style, the other in Sonny Chiba style, each one explaining what he likes about the style he's picked. I have no idea why Sonny Chiba is a real person in that part of the script, and playing a ronin type only named Chiba later on, but at least you can see the actual kung-fu in that part. And for the record, the kid who favors Bruce Lee has a clear advantage.

I followed The Bodyguard up with a quick palate-cleanse in Shaolin Tiger Claw form. It's not a great one, mostly because it's very hard to see what's going on, especially in the outdoor scenes. There is fighting happening — it's not a Chiba tease — but the AD didn't use good filters for outdoor shooting, plus the print is wretched. I could only keep track of the fighters dressed in white or light gray. One neat thing: in the outdoor fight that isn't mostly in shadow, the crowd runs back and forth and to and fro, following the fight, and the whole thing is shot in a way that's reminiscent of the avatars jumping or falling from one level to another in "Tekken."

Renewed somewhat, I faced the next Chiba title, Killing Machine, also known as "the one where Chiba cuts a baddie's dick off and hucks it over his shoulder into the alley, and then a stray dog absconds with it for snacktime." I wish I could tell you that that scene makes Killing Machine awesome. It does not. There's more fighting than in The Bodyguard, but that isn't saying much, and it doesn't pop onscreen; each face-off seems to end before it really gets going, and I really don't understand why the movies got made at all if they didn't want Chiba to get his fight on in a serious way. It's not as experimentally sophomoric and self-regarding as The Bodyguard, and it gets into some interesting American-occupation politics briefly, but…you know. Less glarey, more kicky.

So, I give up. I tried, and Sonny Chiba himself doesn't suck, but his movies don't seem to know how to convey that. (The trailer for Karate Bearfighter is kind of amazing — "Look Forward To Seeing This!" — but: stick to the trailer.) Over it, again.

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3 Comments »

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    If you want some Chiba Charisma action, I highly recommend his series Shadow Warriors. Genuine (and good) acting, compelling storylines, fights where you can see what's happening, rando nudity, and Chiba being all stoic and caring at the same time, while his mortal enemy/great love tries and fails to remind herself that she's got a blood grudge and hates him, she really does, she does indeed….NO! She loves him!

    Really great stuff, and they're set in the past so no polyester will come between you and the Chiba.

  • Gralnger says:

    Karate Bearfighter was a HUGE LET DOWN. >8(

  • bobo says:

    I'm not so sure that chiba can actually fight like people think. All of his fight scenes are short, over-exaggerated movements. The hallmark sign of a fake.

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