Created by Buronson and first published in 1983, Fist of the North Star went on to become a hugely successful series of Manga graphic novels before its first anime screen adaptation a year later which spawned 45 episodes. Having become one of several well known titles outside of Japan - mostly due to the exaggerated violence featured - Buronson's creation would some ten years later become one of the first Manga/Anime series to be adapted into a live-action Hollywood movie.
Directed and co-written by Tony Randel, helmer of Hellraiser II and starring Gary Daniels, a relatively unknown British martial arts exponent and actor, the film would receive a fairly healthy budget and a strong media presence on the set thanks to the Japanese interest. Unfortunately for all those involved only the latter would pay off, with the film only receiving a theatrical release in Japan while the American studios passed the finished production around leaving it to an eventual straight-to-video release. Having seen the film quite some time ago none of this came as much of a surprise during the research period for this review, but could a repeat viewing by a matured viewer change memories past?
Maintaining the basic setup of the original Manga this live-action adaptation throws us into a post-apocalyptic world in which the hellish desert terrains are sparsely populated by outpost settlements whose inhabitants feebly attempt to fend off the tyranny of their world’s self-appointed ruler. Stories of a saviour to oppose the vicious Southern Cross rule are considered a myth, but the arrival of the 'Fist of the North Star' Kenshiro in one such settlement allows the people to believe again as his search for a long lost love takes him straight to Shin, his blood brother and crazed leader of the Southern Cross. A notable aside is the combination of traditional story values detailing opposing forces, the plight of good vs. evil set within futuristic wastelands, and talk of conflict within the lead character which are then mixed with haunting mentor figures in the shape of Kenshiro's father and sacred commodities such as water in the occasional outpost that fears attack from marauding bullies. Add them up and any movie fan will think of Star Wars and Mad Max - an odd combination to say the least.
The central plotline which drove the Manga incarnation was that of two schools of martial arts that co-existed within the world. The Southern and North Cross styles are never meant to clash in battle, but as always they do and for this live action adaptation a love triangle between Shin, Kenshiro and the woman they both love, Julia is the reason for this ignorance of the rules which has led to the world of turmoil presented here. By focusing on this aspect Randel was obviously going for a sweeping love story epic, interspersed with the action most fans would agree needed to be at the forefront of the picture. Though commendable in his vision and attempts to diversify, a poor start was made thanks to a hackneyed script that is filled with as many cornball lines for the action set pieces as it is poorly constructed romantic overtones.
To deliver the dialogue is a cast made from a mixture unknowns, no doubt the who's who of straight-to-video movie actors along with the numerous muscle-bound fighters who throw out a constant stream of forgettable, torrid crap and for the most part their performances here do nothing to suggest they can offer anything more. Standing out are two well known chaps, Malcolm Macdowell and Chris Penn, the former is often known to lend his name to any piece of sci-fi garbage going with the latter in a role not unfamiliar to him, for beyond a few standout performances he fails to walk in the same limelight as his better known brother. Both appear to be enjoying themselves here though, Penn especially as he delivers tripe like "It ain't easy being sleazy" while ordering around a group of oaths, including one ill informed attempt at a sympathetic bad guy, whom he screams at with such embellished conviction you’ll wonder why the head explosion sequence fails to come sooner.
Exceptions to the mostly forgettable cast include Gary Daniels who - dodgy mullet aside – is visually spot on with a great physique and natural ability to pull off the necessary moves required. Letting him down is a lack of dialogue, with the majority of his part consisting of one-liners that he delivers with a slight lack of conviction, allowing his naturally soft spoken British accent to creep in and ruin his attempts at becoming the powerful, assured hero the role demands. Towards the films end when some proper conversation is thrown into the script he begins to show talent, but it’s too little too late by then for the likeable guy to have made his mark in this production. Isako Washio as Julia is dealt a similar hand and given little dialogue for the majority of the film and instead asked to pose in her palace confines looking beautiful - an easy task for the exquisitely proportioned Japanese actress. This leaves us with Costas, a man who as Kenshiro's nemesis has a fairly decent look and is certainly gung-ho, but for a character given some of the most emotionally charged dialogue fails to deliver on his blessings.
Obvious failures in the transition from comic book/anime to live-action is the near infamous pressure-point attacks that, in the original renditions were accompanied by speed line techniques and for the anime delivered with a delightful Bruce Lee style series of screams, but here look rather tame and the first usage has the victim laughing the attack off. We may have seen a similar response in the original Manga, but the audience reaction here will surely be one of disappointment, as it looks ridiculous. At the very least we can say it's not overused, only appearing on two other occasions and often to gradually better response as they include the brutal after-effects regulars will be all too aware of, and newcomers will get the idea if I say 'Scanners'. Important in a film about rival martial arts schools is of course the quality of the action on display. The production was troubled in this sense and it shows, for after watching the footage on the bonus disc I would say the choreography had promise and most of those involved were up to the task. The final product however defies belief, Randel got final cut and his choice of angles, coverage and editing techniques are embarrassing. A few quality shots are present, such as Daniels impressive kicking repertoire seen in the final showdown which, thanks to the wide angle shot can be seen in all its glory, but then shots like these are ruined by what follows as we see strange angles from behind the attacker, clearly showing his enemy reacting to the deliberately missed blows we know are there, but like to suspend our disbelief through the aid of decent editing.
Production values also tend to vary, the sets fall between fairly impressive constructions (the outpost style village), lame desert wastelands which look like the soundstages with poorly painted backdrops they are, and the Southern Cross palace which again looks much like the Hotel lobby they dressed up for its purpose. Other aspects impress however, the effects work in particular does well to mimic the overblown Manga and anime originals excessive violent set-pieces, with victim’s heads pulsating before exploding, their bodies bursting with blood and jaws being satisfyingly dislodged. Some artistic merit can be found in the communist style murals seen adorning the palace walls, they do far more to portray the imposing rule of the Southern Cross than any of the dialogue ever manages. On the other hand is Christopher L. Stone’s original score, a constant feed of overblown sci-fi fare that often fails to make a distinction between good and evil themes, and frequently had me wondering which film he was watching when composing this triumphant hashing of orchestral overtures that are badly misplaced here. Ironically the best musical accompaniment in the entire piece comes from a break in style, as a metal guitar riff accompanies one of Penn's more cheddar inspired monologues.
Contender Entertainment present Fist of the North Star as a two-disc special edition, produced by the clever folk at sub-label Hong Kong Legends for their former namesake, Medusa Pictures.
Presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen the picture here looks better than anyone could possibly have hoped for. With no sign of print damage and natural levels of film grain present the transfer boasts impressive detail levels, deep shades of black and numerous blue and grey hues that make up the depressing world in which the film is mostly set. Compression artefacts are nowhere to be seen while the only unwanted by-product of the remastering process is some minor edge enhancement that only proves unsightly on a couple of occasions.
Featuring a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround mix this provides quite an impressive ambience across the soundstage but little in the way of directional effects to really open up the experience. Though I've expressed my dislike for the original score I should add that it comes across very well here, often too well as the balance between music and dialogue seems a little off, with the overblown score frequently over powering everything else even more than it probably should.
Subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing are included for the main feature only.
Disc one features audio commentary with lead actor Gary Daniels and 'cult' (their words, not mine) film director Ross Boyask. The relationship between the participants is never explained, but they combine for a friendly atmosphere with Boyask posing questions to Daniels ensuring the conversation never falters. Both fortunately acknowledge early on that Fist of the North Star is not without its faults, while Daniels manages to cover the running time with stories ranging from concept, through production to promotion with general thoughts on the film and select sequences offered by both. Though a little slow in places this generally makes for a worthwhile commentary that offers some welcome insight to the production.
Also present on the first disc is a selection of trailers for titles on the Hong Kong Legends and Premier Asia labels.
Split into three sections the bonus disc covers the following areas of production...
North Star Versus Southern Cross: The Making of Fist of the North Star is a 55-minute Japanese making-of documentary that follows the five-week shoot documenting several major scenes and featuring comments from various cast and crew members. Choosing to lead with a mixture of behind-the-scenes footage and on-set interviews the visuals are then backed up by an enthusiastic and often humorous narration (subtitled here in English). Opportunities are given to compare and contrast single camera takes of the action against the final edited version, highlighting many of the films action drawbacks as rough versions of the fights seen here from a behind-the-scenes camera crew are more compelling than those in the final cut. Also to be commended is how both the productions highs and lows are showcased, with a stand-off between the action director and director not being glossed over. Aside from some overly melodramatic moments (in a making-of-documentary no less!) this is a fine production documentary that does everything you can ask of such a feature.
Also found in this section is a short animated photo gallery with the lead actors posing in costume, so if you're anything like me you'll watch this on fast-forward to get it over and done with. You will also find both the original theatrical trailer (4:3 Full Screen) and the new UK promotional trailer (Anamorphic Widescreen) for the film.
In Battle Plans (15mins) you will find a selection of footage with the lead actors and stunt choreographers as they block out the fight sequences before shooting. Locations for this include a training gym, parking lot, backyard or wherever seems appropriate, before moving on to rehearsals on the set (most of which are different angles of what we saw in the making-of documentary). Once again this footage showcases the effort that went into the choreography, and proves there were some decent fights in the film but sadly the final edit simply fails to reflect this fact, and martial arts fans will probably get more satisfaction from this unedited footage than they will the final product.
Gory, Gory, Hallelujah! (13mins) is another selection of raw footage from the set and special effects house as they work on the body destruction sequences featured throughout the movie. Interesting if nothing else, you might find yourself skipping ahead every now and then unless you find material of this nature truly captivating.
Bringing the on-set footage to an end is a small 4-minute section entitled Roving Eye, which uses footage shot by Gary Daniels on the set and is a more intimate look at some of the people involved in the production.
Gary Daniels sits down for a 46-minute interview, though anyone who has the City Hunter DVD may find the first ten minutes vaguely familiar as its lifted direct from that and includes a breakdown of Gary's training. From this point on however we find new footage as we hear from Gary on the Fist of the North Star project with some most welcome elaboration on the conflict between him, Winston Omega (fight choreographer) and the director over the shooting and editing of the fight sequences. Gary has an openness about him that makes listening to what he has to say very easy, with simple to the point comments like "I was disgusted" when discussing the editing of the fight sequences both amusing and true. He brings his time to a close with discussion on the film industry, his aspirations for future stardom and some words of wisdom to would-be martial arts film stars. To compliment the interview we also find a short five minute feature, Warrior in Motion, with Gary training and running through some simple choreography at the Bob Breen Academy in London.
Due to its numerous faults Fist of the North Star is one for inquisitive individuals and fans alike, be they interested in the Manga to live action adaptation, leading stars or martial arts aspects of the picture. It's never bad to the point of switching off early, and sadly never so bad that you'll have a wry grin on your face throughout (though it does have this effect from time to time), but it's bad enough to warrant the score awarded here and as such is highly unlikely to be revisited by myself anytime soon. All this begs the question - why the special edition? I guess it comes down to available material and co-operation from the lead actor, Gary Daniels and in the same vein as several of the HKL Platinum Edition releases it offers a bonus features package to almost make up for the main features failings.