VOD Releases: Karate Kill (2017) - Reviewed

Get out of his way, there’s a new karate master in town and his name is Karate Kill. Karate master Kenji (Hayete) comes to America, looking to find his missing sister. Discovering that she has been kidnapped by a ruthless cult group and their leader, he must go on a bloody rampage to save her and destroy them.

As a fan of Quentin Tarantino and his martial arts opus Kill Bill Volumes 1 and 2 and the Cannon Films’ Ninja series, I was intrigued when the marketing for Karate Kill described it as a sort of mashup of the two. I was more than pleasantly surprised to find that to be mostly true. Depending on your personal cinematic tastes, this is a near masterpiece of excess that combines elements of grindhouse and exploitation cinema, Japanese shock and gore cinema, low budget ‘80s martial arts and action films, the revenge thriller Rolling Thunder, Sonny Chiba, Sho Kosugi, and so much more. Boasting a bevy of over-the-top characters, intense martial arts, graphic nudity and violence, some gorgeously filmed sequences, and a viscerally brutal performance from Hayate, Karate Kill is a few miscues from being my favorite film of the year.

The story isn’t anything new or groundbreaking, basically fitting nicely into the revenge subgenre. While the plot is rather formulaic and features many of the standard tropes that you expect to see, it does put its own twist on a revenge actioner to make it decidedly unique and Japanese. This is a Japanese film set within America, with very little English spoken and almost all of the dialogue consisting of Japanese with English subtitles. The characters and situations may seem over-the-top and outlandish at times, but that doesn’t deter the filmmakers from maintaining a dark tone throughout. Writer and director Kurando Mitsutake (Gun Woman, Samurai Avenger: The Blind Wolf) pulls no punches in presenting the more seedy and violent side of life, even if it appears cartoonish to some viewers. We are treated to a world of online snuff films, where viewers pay to watch a live battle to the death from their computers.

The directing and cinematography are great throughout. The production looks outstanding, far better than you would typically expect from an indie action movie. There are some beautifully shot scenes, most notably a training sequence with the sun setting in the background. Most of the movie contains nice camera angles and shot selections, with some daring camera choices that included a 360 degree continuous camera turn during an uncut fight scene. It makes for an interesting scene, but I believe it actually detracted from the fact that they didn’t cut away during the fight. The picture has a good score from Dean Harada, featuring a mostly orchestral composition consisting big sounds that makes the production seem so much grander than without that music. The sound effects were a little bit of an issue. They were too loud and overused, harming the serious tone that the filmmakers were trying to maintain.

The acting is solid from this impressive cast. Hayete is exceptional as the karate master Kenji, displaying a calm determination in his character while also being able to deliver the goods physically. He has a strong presence onscreen that is reminiscent of Sonny Chiba and Sho Kosugi, even bearing some resemblance to Kosugi. He may not be as physically gifted as Tony Jaa or Iko Uwais, but he is a budding star with tons of potential. Asami of The Machine Girl fame plays Keiko, Kenji’s sidekick and budding love interest who sports a prosthetic hook hand similar to William Devane’s character in Rolling Thunder. Kirk Gelger is fantastic as the intense and outlandish cult leader of the group called Capital Messiah, making Charles Manson look moderately sane compared to him. Former WWE star Katarina Leigh Waters appears as the one-eyed henchman Simona and manages to have a good fight scene with Hayete. Noriaki Kamata and David Sakurai also deserve recognition for their respective battles with Hayete, as well as all of the members of the cast and crew that performed the stunts and other martial arts sequences.

Fans of R-rated nudity and violence will be more than satisfied, as there is a healthy dose of nudity, blood, gore, and fight scenes. It might not reach the same level as Kill Bill, The Machine Girl, or Tokyo Gore Police, but it is pretty close. The major issue is that CGI is used for gun shots, some of the blood, and a couple other moments in the movie. They are obvious and may detract from the overall viewing experience, depending on your opinion of CGI blood. I am personally not a fan and prefer practical effects, but understand that lower budgeted productions sometimes have to make these decisions based on budgetary restrictions. The fight scenes make up for the CGI issues and are terrific and brutal, with minimal cutaways and none of the over-editing that plagues other films with action sequences.

Hail Capital Messiah!

Fans of martial arts and grindhouse cinema need to see this film, it contains a little bit of everything to please fans of both subgenres and has potential for cult film status. Despite some issues with the use of CGI and sound effects, this is an entertaining actioner from start to finish and features an excellent performance from Hayete.

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