Wednesday, January 18, 2017


The charms of a movie like Bloodsport (1988) - and really a lot of martial arts movies - lie somewhere between cheesy goofiness and hey-that-was-actually-pretty-cool.

The first movie starring Jean-Cleade Van Damme, Bloodsport mixes bad acting, a minuscule plot, unintentional hilarity, 80s power ballads, and overblown macho posturing with admittedly intense, physical fights and impressive athletic displays. This is perfectly encapsulated by the main musical theme, which is as awesome as it is stuck in the 1980s.

Van Damme plays Frank Dux, an "American" invited to Hong Kong for the Kumite, a martial arts tournament featuring the best fighters in the world. Defying his military superiors, he flies off to prove himself and compete for the honor his ninjutsu mentor, Senzo Tanaka. Along the way, he avoids government agents sent to bring him home, befriends a fellow American fighter, romances a journalist looking to get the inside dirt on Kumite, and heads to showdown with the current champion, Chong Li (Bolo Yeung).

A lot of Bloodsport is goofy.Van Damme has never been much of an actor (although the young actor playing Dux as a kid makes Van Damme look like an Oscar contender). His delivery is awkward, and the intense faces he makes during fights are impossible to take seriously. But still, as a physical specimen, he's really something. In motion, whether it's kicking some guy in the head or doing the splits, he has a great presence and looks like he can legitimately kick some ass.

The plot mostly serves as an excuse to get to the next fight scene. If you want to see a bunch of muscled-up and shirtless dudes pounding each other in the head until they bleed, this is the movie for you. After a somewhat slow beginning (featuring a flashback showing how Dux acquired his skills), the movie almost never lets, depicting one fight after another. Sure, the romance is boring and the pursuit by the feds to bring Dux back amounts to nothing (other than showing Forest Whitaker in an early role that likely won't be included in his career retrospective montage), but most of the running time is devoted to fighting and matches.

For the most part, the matches are pretty well done, vicious, intense, requiring a fair amount of athletic ability to pull off. A lot of these guys look like legitimate martial artists who can do more than flail their arms around. The contests are physical, sweaty, and bloody with the occasional bit of obvious Hollywood trickery to destroy the illusion, like the overuse of slow motion. Maybe it's just me, but personally, I like to see to physical feats on camera done in real time; slow motion tips the hand that something's been staged.

Sometimes, there's a genuinely funny moment, like the guy who swipes a golden tooth off the mat after its original owner loses, and Donald Gibb (aka Ogre from Revenge of the Nerds) is terrific as the only other American in the tournament who befriends Dux and is really a swell guy when he's not wailing on other dudes. Other moments are unintentionally funny, like Dax's facial expressions during the final fight after he's been blinded.

Bloodsport is not a movie I can take seriously. There's too much goofiness and cheese factor for that, but it's still fun. The fights are cool, the plot is nonsense, and Van Damme does all right for himself, just so long as he doesn't speak.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Red Heat

The more I think about it, the more I consider Arnold Schwarzenegger to be an incredibly underrated actor. I don't mean to say he's Academy Award caliber, but if the goal of a performance is to convince the audience to accept the character, then Arnold does not nearly get the credit he deserves. Arnold had a way of turning would-be limitations - thick Austrian accent, bulky physique, etc. - to strengths.

Take Red Heat (1998), a buddy cop movie directed by Walter Hill. Arnold plays Captain Ivan Danko, a Soviet super cop on the trail of a Georgian drug dealer who fled to Chicago. Jim Belushi plays Art Ridzik, the local detective assigned to be his handler. Neither of them likes the arrangement; Danko is a strict disciplinarian, humorless, obedient to his superiors, and Ridzik, while a good cop in his own right, is a slob, constantly making wisecracks and getting into trouble with his bosses.

Buddy cop movies were all the rage in the 80s, from Lethal Weapon and Tango and Cash to Hill's own 48 Hours. Even science fiction and horror were joining in with the likes of Alien Nation and Dead Heat. There's just something about inherently appealing about odd-couple partners forced to team up to take down the bad guys; they practically write themselves. The plot of Red Heat might be pure formula, but Schwarzenegger and Belushi make a great mismatched team, and Hill brings a slick professionalism to the action, making this one of the better examples of the genre.

Some of the humor is built on the philosophical differences between Danko and Ridzik and by extension America and the Soviet Union. Danko arrives in Chicago and sees the decadence of capitalism: crime, drugs, prostitution, sleazy motels where you put in a quarter for porn to play on your TV, and a police force that goes easy on criminals. As he says, "Very strange city. The crime is organized. The police is not."

Ridzik sees Danko as a stiff jerk from a country that has no freedom. He tries to lecture Danko on the Miranda Rights everyone in America has, including scumbags and informants. The Soviet officials are assured of their moral superiority over the West and want to keep it hush-hush that they have a problem with drugs in their country, going so far as to refer to cocaine as the "American poison," but pretending they don't have the same problems as America doesn't mean they don't.

The film gets a lot of mileage out of playing off Schwarzenegger and Belushi as foils to each other. Danko is serious, under all circumstances, even as the situation gets completely ridiculous; in the opening scene, Danko wrestles some goons in a steam house, mostly naked, until they end up tumbling outside in the snow.

Meanwhile, Ridzik deflates everything. When they get a chance to meet the drug dealers face to face, Belushi initially refuses to give up his gun, but when a thug put a barrel to his head, he's immediately compliant.

Gradually, being the kind of movie this is, the two men begin to respect each other. Beneath their cultural and personal differences, they share a common value system: to uphold the law and bring criminals to justice, even if it means resorting to some underhanded methods at times. While interrogating an informant, Ridzik plants a bag of heroin on him to create legal leverage. Danko just breaks his fingers.

Elsewhere, Ed Ross makes for an effective villain who makes the stakes personal (Arnold killed his brother; he killed Arnold's partner). Peter Boyle handles the thankless role of the disapproving chief with aplomb, and keep your eyes peeled for Laurence Fishburne as a superior who doesn't like Belushi. A young Gina Gershon plays a woman who marries Ross as part of an immigration scheme and finds herself in over her head when the bullets start flying; this subplot disappointingly feels truncated and is resolved in a rather heartless, cold fashion (a more serious thriller could have been built around this angle).

Hill could action in the 80s almost better than anyone. The shootouts are fast and intense, and the final chase involves not cars but buses and trains crashing into each other. More importantly, he balances the serious action with the character-based humor, so one doesn't detract from the other. As formulaic as the plot is, the movie feels natural.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

My Favorite Browns Moments since 1999

The Cleveland Browns have closed a historically bad season. They finished 1-15, continuing a seemingly interminable streak of misery and frustration stretching back to the team's return in 1999, after owner Art Modell moved the franchise to Baltimore following the 1995 season.

But I'm not here to pile on the negativity. It's too easy to list the team's failed quarterbacks, draft busts, off-field frustrations, and general mistakes and goofs that have festered a feeling of futility.

Instead, I want to list my favorite moments from the Browns since their return in 1999. The Browns have not consistently won in decades, but the moments below are the moments that make me proud to be a fan, the hidden gems that make the misery somewhat bearable. I only hope they'll eventually turn things around, but no matter what, I'll have these.

10) Gary Barnidge Leg Catch
One of the few positives of the disappointing 2015 season was the emergence of tight end Gary Barnidge. A career back-up, Barnidge was thrust into the role of starter when Pro Bowler Jordan Cameron left in free agency, and Barnidge responded with 1,043 receiving yards and nine touchdowns, tying a record set by Hall of Famer Ozzie Newsome for a club record of most touchdowns by a tight end in a season.
Barnidge always had a good hands, but against the Ravens on Oct. 11, he showed he could use his legs, too. Late in the game, the Browns down, Barnidge jumped for a pass at the goal line. The defender broke up the catch, but as he fell to the ground, Barnidge squeezed the ball between his legs, keeping it from hitting the ground. He grabbed the ball and swung over the line for a touchdown, giving the Browns the lead. It has to be seen to believed. 

9) Home Opener Win
In 2014, the Browns had a new coach, Mike Pettine, and a new general manager, Ray Farmer, and were coming off a 4-12 season the previous year. The first game, against the Steelers in Pittsburgh, started ugly, as the Browns limped into half time down 27-3. They came back but lost 30-27, another heartbreaker.
Game 2 was at home against the New Orleans Saints. The last time Cleveland won its home opener was in 2004. Well, Cleveland snapped the 10-year streak, with Billy Cundiff hitting the game-winning field goal in the final seconds. The Browns won 26-24.

8) Love for Alex Mack
The Browns were at one point 7-4 and in the playoff hunt in 2014 before losing their last five in a row to end 7-9. 2015 and 2016 have continued the losing ways, but for a time, it looked the Browns had finally turned a corner. Part of the reason: the running game was solid behind a stout offensive line, including center Alex Mack.
Mack was one of the few first round picks of the Browns in the new millennium to live up to the draft status, providing stability and leadership on the line along with All-Pro Left Tackle Joe Thomas.
I think the decline of the Browns in 2014 can be pinpointed to losing Mack in Game 6 to a season-ending leg injury. The Browns were never able to replace Mack, cycling in different centers to little effectiveness, and the offense, especially the run game, suffered.
As sad as all that is, it resulted in one of the most heartwarming and moving scenes I've ever seen on a football field. As Mack was being carted off the field, what looked every member of the Browns roster came over to him to offer support and encouragement.  As the cart left, the crowd gave him a standing ovation.
For a team plagued by years of mismanagement, bickering, toxic locker rooms, and other personnel problems, the Browns arguably never looked more like a team since they came back.

7) Phil Dawson Rules
The Browns are usually on the receiving end of screwy rules and officiating, but on Nov. 18, 2007, they were the beneficiaries for a change. Phil Dawson is one of the best placekickers in the game, and in the closing seconds against the Ravens, he attempted a 51-yard field goal with Cleveland down by three. Initially, the kick was ruled incomplete because the ball bounced off the bottom post before landing in front. However, referees reversed the decision, calling it complete after discussion on the field, because the ball did go over the crossbar.
The Browns went on to win in overtime, and Phil Dawson had a new NFL rule named after him. At the time, field goals and extra points were not reviewable, but with the Phil Dawson Rule, officials could review kicks that hit the crossbar or upright.

6) Peyton Hillis Wins the Madden Cover
Nationally, the Browns have been seen as a joke for a long time, but it was great for a Browns player to receive some positive recognition when running back Peyton Hillis was named the Madden NFL 12 cover athlete, beating out the likes of Ray Rice and Aaron Rodgers in the vote.
Hillis had a monster year in 2010, racking up 1,177 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns, plus 477 receiving yards and two receiving touchdowns. Sadly, Hillis never replicated those numbers and burned his bridges in Cleveland soon after, but for one season, he was a legitimate superstar and playmaker on a team lacking those types of players.

5) Joe Thomas becomes a Brown
The list of failed first-round busts for Browns, plus all the talent they passed over, is a sobering reminder of why the team can't get any traction. While some of the Browns picks have proved decent players, most have not been the game-changing studs one could build a team around. Left tackle Joe Thomas has been the leading exception.
Drafted in 2007 with the third overall pick, Thomas is an All Pro offensive lineman who has made the Pro Bowl every season since entering the league and has not missed a snap, carrying the longest active streak in the league. He's offered stability, professionalism, and superior play where it has been badly needed. Thomas will undoubtedly be a Hall of Famer, and it's a shame management has not taken better advantage of him or provided him with more support, but Thomas has been stalwart, embodying the best of the Cleveland Browns past and present.

4) Browns Beat the Patriots
On any given Sunday, any team can beat another. In the same time span the Browns have been one of the worst teams in the NFL, the New England Patriots have been one of the best. The Patriots have won multiple Super Bowls, have an MVP quarterback in Tom Brady, and are loaded with talent on both sides of the ball (further twisting the knife is how leading the Patriots is former Browns Head Coach Bill Belichick).
Yet, back in 2010, the lowly Browns somehow managed to beat the Patriots 34-14. The Browns didn't just squeak by; they dominated. Rookie QB Colt McCoy outplayed Brady, and overall, the Browns offense gained 404 yards to New England's 283.
Any given Sunday.

3) Immaculate Deception
Josh Cribbs was a great return specialist, converting 11,113 kick off returns yards and 2,375 punt return yards into a combined 11 touchdowns. Not bad for an undrafted quarterback out of Kent State playing one of the toughest and most dangerous positions of football.
One of his most memorable returns came against the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2007. It was almost a disaster. The Steelers kicked off in the early minutes of the fourth quarter, and the ball bounced off Cribbs and right to the goal line. With Steelers bearing down on him, Cribbs picked up the ball, dodged several tacklers, and raced 100 yards down the sideline for a touchdown.
The Browns regained the lead but in the end, lost the game. Still, 2007 was the last winning season of the Browns and made for some exciting games down the stretch.

2) "Run, William, run!"
The Browns have made the playoffs once since 1999, a wild card appearance in 2002 when they went 9-7.
The final victory came in the last game of the year, a home game against the Atlanta Falcons. The victory was secured in the closing minutes when running back William Green scored on a 64-yard run.
What makes the moment even sweeter was Jim Donovan, the team's radio play-by-play broadcaster. As Green broke through and raced to the end zone, Donovan got more and more excited until he's screaming in the booth. "Run, William, run!" Donovan shouted as Green closed in on the touchdown that secured the Browns playoff berth.
It's a great call, and the enthusiasm is infectious. The Browns were playing meaningful games in December again, and they were coming out on top.

1) Tim Couch's Hail Mary
1999 feels like a lifetime ago. The team was reborn, ready to climb back to the top of the heap, and Tim Couch, the first overall pick of the draft, was the quarterback who would lead the Browns back to glory.
It didn't work out that way. The team has limped on while Couch, thrown to the wolves, was all but destroyed with a weak team of castoffs and rookies around him. In their first year back, the Browns went 2-14.
Still, there was hope they'd get better, hope the future was bright, hope not yet shredded by 16 years of losing. That hope was best demonstrated when the re-born Browns finally won a game,
On Oct. 31, the Browns were battling the New Orleans Saints and trailing 16-14. After the Saints went ahead with a field goal in the final minute, the Browns got the ball back with 16 seconds left. After a couple of plays, they were still far away from the end zone, and the clock was down to two seconds.
On the last play, Couch hurled a Hail Mary from the Browns' own 42-yard line. Despite Couch running for his life, despite defenders deflecting the pass, Browns receiver Kevin Johnson caught the ball in the end zone. The Browns had their first victory back, their first since 1995.
For a moment, the old magic was back.