MTI // 2007 // 85 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Paul Pritchard (Retired) // June 19th, 2008
Rockabilly music and martial arts meets Night of the Living Dead.
Martial arts + Night of the Living Dead = cool. Rockabilly? Er, no thanks.
Johnny Dow, a mild-mannered gas station owner, has his world turned upside down (as is often the case in these motion pictures), when his best friend, the dimwitted Eddie, discovers half of an ancient and powerful spear and becomes possessed by the spirit of a demon seeking to take over the world with the spear's power.
As luck would have it, Johnny happens to have the other half of the spear, which, rather improbably, was crafted into the guitar that his father used to write his one and only hit single.
Soon, aided by female kung fu master Mika, who is one in a long line of warriors trained to defeat the demon menace, Johnny sets out to defeat Eddie, who is turning the populace of their small town into donut-loving zombies, in his quest to unite the two halves of the spear and conquer the world.
Writer/Director Kenn Scott, whose most famous gig prior to this was playing Raphael in the first two Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies, turns in a flawed, yet undeniably likeable debut feature: a family friendly action movie that mixes a healthy dose of martial arts mayhem with donut-munching zombies. Like the lovechild of Big Trouble in Little China and The Matrix, Adventures of Johnny Tao: Rock Around the Dragon is a smorgasbord of ideas that, blemishes aside, constantly belies its limited budget to deliver a kung fu action movie that the whole family can enjoy without any fears of the younglings picking up any profanity or being exposed to excessive violence. That can't be a bad thing, can it?
While Scott stumbles frequently when the time comes to focus on plot and character development, often falling back onto the same old clichés to drive events forward, he proves himself more than capable when dealing with action scenes. Although the brawl that opens the picture reveals the film's use of wire-fu to enhance the fight choreography, it only offers a brief hint of what is to come. Before long, standoffs unexpectedly erupt into stunning comic-book style showdowns with kung fu masters jumping from wall-to-wall, delivering bone crunching blows to their adversaries, all the time remembering to pause just long enough to strike a cool pose. Although the movie lacks the grace of Hero or the visual punch of The Matrix, there is clearly talent on display here. The final showdown in an abandoned fortune cookie factory, complete with fortune paper twirling around the two warriors, possesses a particularly strange beauty.
The quality of the film's cast ranges from barely competent to passable. Thankfully the central trio of Matthew Twining (Johnny), Matthew Mullins (Eddie), and Chris Yen (Mika) injects enough enthusiasm into their roles to keep the viewer from being jolted out of the movie by yet another cornball performance, while James Hong (Big Trouble in Little China) acts everyone else off the screen despite having less than 10 minutes of screen time. Each of the three main actors also proves themselves adept with their fight scenes, working well with director Kenn Scott and action designer Marcus Young to produce action sequences that easily best the Power Rangers, while delivering a swift kick to the collective heads of the 3 Ninjas and giving the whiny Daniel Larusso something else to limp off to Mr. Miyagi about. In fact, as long as you don't take it all too seriously and accept the fact that this isn't a serious martial arts movie, there is plenty of fun to be had.
The screener copy of Adventures of Johnny Tao: Rock Around the Dragon lacked any extra features. A little rummaging around the Internet reveals the released version is to contain a fairly standard-looking set of special features, including a making-of and commentary. While the audio on the DVD was reasonably impressive, with no real cause for complaint, the video was somewhat lacking. Whether this is the case of the screener discs being hobbled is unclear, though certainly possible.
While the film's plot is kept nice and simple, allowing the youngsters to keep up with what's going on, it lacks any real depth, making Adventures of Johnny Tao: Rock Around the Dragon a fun, even cool movie, but one that struggles to hold viewers' attention between action sequences. At 85 minutes, the film doesn't have enough time to really drag, but when the characters aren't involved in mortal combat or macho posturing, Adventures of Johnny Tao: Rock Around the Dragon starts to creak a little under the strain of trying to entertain without resorting to fisticuffs.
Although it's a matter of personal taste, the film's rockabilly soundtrack must also rank as a negative point. While the music is ingrained in the films backstory, it also loses a few of the style points the action sequences had earned the film.
For those looking for a family film that doesn't revolve around boy wizards or talking lions, Adventures of Johnny Tao: Rock Around the Dragon offers a genuinely entertaining alternative. Though adults are likely to find repeat viewings a chore, at least when the film isn't in full-on action movie mode, kids who are too young to enjoy the adventures of Neo and Co. are sure to enjoy it, making it a perfect rental during the summer holidays.
Your kung fu is strong, Johnny Tao. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 85 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Filmmakers' Commentary
* Making Of Featurette
* Official Site