Judge Adam Arseneau foolishly ordered "Lethal Chiba" once at a bad Mexican restaurant. A bottle of Pepto-Bismol cleared things up.
Our review of The Executioner, published January 19th, 2007, is also available.
Finally, a Chiba box set with Chiba actually in it! Unlike previous BCI Eclipse box sets (which had Chiba on the cover and hardly anywhere else), Lethal Chiba features three serious Chiba-filled films full of butt-kicking aplenty: Killing Machine, The Executioner, and Karate Inferno: The Executioner II.
Facts of the Case
(Sh ôrinji Kenp ô) (1975)
Doshin So (Sonny Chiba) serves his country during the Pacific War in China as an undercover spy. After Japan surrenders, his spirit is broken. Returning home, he finds that his family's land has been seized. He struggles with his role in life without battle, horrified by the suffering and despondency of postwar Japan. Vowing to fight for justice, he helps rescue a town from a group of black marketers and begins to rebuild his life centered on a stringent code of righteousness. Setting up a martial arts dojo, he strives on a never-ending quest to increase his strength and protect those in need. Japan may be defeated, but So will never give up the fight!
(Chokugeki! Jigoku-ken) (1974)
Ryuichi Koga (Sonny Chiba) is the latest in a long line of ninja, heir to the secrets of the Koga clan. But much to his grandfather's dismay, the youngest member of the clan has no desire to continue living a monastic lifestyle. He takes off to the city and becomes a private investigator, of sorts, using his talents to take seedy jobs.
One day, Koga is contacted by a beautiful woman and contracted to take a dangerous job. Led by an ex-police captain, the group will hire a trio of trained killers to take down a dangerous and deadly gang of drug smugglers, whose products are flooding the Japanese country and destroying a generation of youth. Koga could care less about the plight of the Japanese people, but when the captain says he can keep the drug money, Koga agrees.
Along with ex-police officer turned underworld contract killer Hayabusa (Makoto Sato) and convicted rapist/murderer Sakura (Eiji Go, brother of chipmunk-cheeked Jo Shishido), the trio infiltrates organized crime in Japan and tries to stop the drug flow, once and for all and, hopefully, make a nice profit in the process.
Karate Inferno: The Executioner II
(Chokugeki jigoku-ken: Dai-gyakuten) (1974)
The Kaufman family jewel, a fabulously wealthy stone owned by rich heiress Sabine, has been stolen! Worse, her daughter has been kidnapped as well and is being held for ransom. Fearing the police cannot help, Koga (Chiba) and his two killer companions are called in to facilitate the rescue and recovery of the jewel. They succeed in recovering the daughter, but lose the jewel—and the ransom money!
The heiress gets the jewel back by paying the ransom again, cheating the team out of yet another payday. Refusing to be stiffed yet again, Koga decides to steal the jewel from the heiress in revenge, but is horrified to discover the Kaufman jewel is a fake! The real stone is being held in a maximum-security office building, protected by numerous armed guards. Refusing to leave well enough alone, Koga and his men decide to take on the challenge of breaking into the building and stealing the jewel, once and for all.
Lethal Chiba is the latest in a long line of BCI Eclipse releases featuring Sonny Chiba—some more than others—including The Shogun Collection, The Sonny Chiba Action Pack, and The Samurai Collection Featuring Sonny Chiba. Of the three, this set is the first to feature Chiba as a main character in all. Often, his appearances in previous volumes amounted to nothing more than a cameo. So right off the bat, Lethal Chiba stands out from its predecessors quite well. So let's get to the films in question.
Based on the real-life Doshin So, who invented Shorinji Kempo, a martial art that combined Japanese karate, Daito-ryu aiki-jujutsu, and judo techniques into Shaolin-style kung fu, Killing Machine is a solid Chiba martial arts film from the 1970s, but otherwise a fairly unremarkable example of its genre, save for its slightly better-than-average plot and character development.
Though mildly mediocre by martial arts film standards, Killing Machine is punctuated by enough fight sequences, hewn limbs, and broken bones to satisfy fight purists. The fighting style of choice, a throw-heavy blend of hard and soft fighting, is brutally effective at dislocating shoulders and breaking noses. Chiba may lack the flair and style of modern-day action stars, but there is something inherently satisfying about the overly intense way he goes about beating people down. Here, So kicks a lot of butt, wrenches a lot of arms from sockets, and throws his fancy moves around—but amusingly enough, does no killing, making Killing Machine one of the most unfortunate English title translations around. He does kick a mean pair of wooden sandals, though.
So quickly establishes a dojo and gets involved in the plights of various secondary characters, but such plot devices are mostly for filler. For example, a group of gangsters sexually assault some girls and get their heads cracked open. One student loses his arm defending his sister in a fight, and falls into an alcoholic depression. There is a romantic subplot involving a friend who is trying to locate his missing wife, but this problem, like all the other problems in the film, is resolved the same way. So beats the tar out of someone or the characters devote themselves more to their training. Shao-lin solves all, after all. Eventually, So's do-gooding becomes a nuisance for the ruling powers, gangsters and police alike, and they set out to destroy his dojo. So, of course, kicks ass in reply. He overcomes his weaknesses and helps others to do the same; in this way, the entire country of Japan finds redemption for its dishonorable defeat at the hands of foreigners. Err, yeah. The message may be somewhat xenophobic, but kind of positive…I guess?
The slightly odd underlying message of Killing Machine is one of fierce Japanese nationalism. After surrendering in the Pacific War, So watches Japan descend into depression, self-loathing, and submission under foreign powers. So is not content to stand idly by and see his country descend into chaos. He adopts a firm, almost militant, attitude towards personal growth and training. He rights wrongs, defends the weak and impoverished, and has little respect for authority, breaking the law when it suits his samurai-esque code of ethics. He constantly butts heads with corrupt government officials and crooked gangsters alike. He is, in short, one righteous dude.
Dated by the corny music cues and rapid zoom-ins, Killing Machine is a product of the 1970s, no doubt about it. Fortunately, the subplots buoy the film well enough to make Killing Machine a decent enough watch. The acting is hokey, and the plot is clichéd and riddled with logical fallacies, but it's a Chiba martial arts film, man. I mean, the fact that we have a believable plot at all is something worth noting. The final sequence—Chiba versus a small army—is worth sticking around for, if only for the awesome wah-wah funk music.
Killing Machine is not a spectacular film, and certainly not one I'd ever seek out as a stand-alone title, but its inclusion here in a box set of Chiba films is by no means unwelcome.
Starting with the high-pitched scream and black screen hand-jiving martial arts demo of the opening credits, The Executioner comes barreling out the gates at a full roar of machismo and muscle. This one is a true Chiba classic—it makes no bones about what kind of film it is and how much ass it fully intends to kick. Then it goes out and kicks that ass in short order. An overflowing smorgasbord of martial arts splendor and visceral style, The Executioner has bloody one-punch killings, popped eyeballs, ninja attacks, massive amounts of murder and mauling, beatings and brutalities, short skirts and naked women, funky music, and slapstick comedy. And that's just in the first 15 minutes. By my count, this makes The Executioner the single greatest film ever created. No, really.
Shameless exploitation at it highest form, The Executioner personifies all that was bad and glorious about Japanese yakuza fighting films in the 1970s, a genre driven over the top trying to counter Hong Kong's international success with Bruce Lee. It has funky modern soundtracks, faceless gangsters, violent fights, excessive gore, and over-the-top nudity and female exploitation. Hell, Chiba even cuts his hair and fights like Lee in this one. Today, The Executioner feels ridiculous and nonsensical, painfully dated like a shag carpet but undeniably entertaining and campy. The over-the-top attitude translates well to a modern audience. Purists may find the film juvenile and excessive in its indulgences, but such people are wrong and need a skull punch to the back of their head that pops their @#$% eyeballs out.
Sorry, I got carried away. It happens with a movie this awesome. But in all seriousness, The Executioner is fantastic fun at the expense of common sense. Equally at home with dismemberment as bad comedy, the film's balance between comedy and violence feels unnatural at times. Admittedly, its constant need to undermine its own seriousness lessens its impact, but tongue-in-cheek excess is exactly what people crave from Chiba's pulp run in the 1970s, right? Really, the only thing The Executioner is guilty of in my book is diabolically giving us too much of a good thing.
To put into context what this film is all about, I paraphrase a small sequence n the film. Imagine if you will: Koga descends from the ceiling to see a man and a woman making love. He watches with a cat-like grin on his face, hands behind his head, until he is spotted. Fighting ensues, with the girl hollering in the background. Koga knocks the man down to the ground and, when he gets up, inexplicably, he sees Koga in bed with his girl, crawling all over her under the covers. Furious, he swings his fists down upon him, but Koga moves out of the way just in time—crushing the girl in half beneath the villain's gigantic fists. The sequence, like the film as a whole, is utterly pointless, ridiculous, and shamefully exploitative, and I love every second of it.
The film is stylishly directed, but the story and acting are predictably ludicrous—Chiba and cast let it hang out for this film, reveling in the tongue-and-cheek stupidity and looking like they're have a great time in the process. It may be stupid, but you can't help but laugh. The fighting is taken to ludicrous extreme, full of popped eyeballs, ribs torn from chests, and all manner of absurdities. The fighting may be far from authentic, but it kicks butt—and there's a lot of it.
If you like your films bloody and ridiculous, this is your new favorite film. If like myself, you've been looking for a good edition of The Executioner on DVD, you've definitely found it.
First things first: Karate Inferno: The Executioner II has the best sequel title this side of Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo. The word "karate" is infinitely improved and made awesome by pairing it with the word "inferno." The Japanese know things, my friend.
If there was any doubt that The Executioner II would fail to deliver on its predecessor's namesake, set such fears aside immediately. They are, in fact, almost the same movie: the second begins with exactly the same premise as the first, bringing the same three oddball assassins and outcasts together to perform a job "under the table," with hilarious and deadly results ensuing. It would feel very redundant were it not made painstakingly clear how much fun the filmmakers are having riffing off themselves.
Actually, they have way too much fun. Truth be told, The Executioner II is even stupider than the original, like seeing The Three Stooges as Japanese action heroes in the 1970s. The buddy comedy angle is heightened here, with far more physical comedy, slapstick, and goofing around by its protagonists, making for a lighter and fluffier film, but one utterly devoid of any action or fighting. In fact, nearly all the butt-kicking this time has been replaced with bodily function gags and clichéd comedy. Talk about false advertising! With a name like Karate Inferno—oh, who am I kidding? I never get tired of that name.
Exploitation cinema at its most laughable, The Executioner II is painfully 1970s: bad suits, aviator glasses, chain smoking, and the whole nine. The Japanese twist on the genre is fairly diluted. Overall, it is a very Western-styled film, modern in direction, humor, and irrelevant amounts of nudity. Truthfully, The Executioner II is less a martial arts film and more a caper film like The Italian Job full of James Bond-style suaveness and espionage. Forget any pretext about Koga being a ninja here. He is basically a spy for hire now, dancing through the city like a badly dressed gangster, fighting bad guys with a porno soundtrack playing in the background. All done for laughs, mind you; this film doesn't have a serious bone in its body.
Unfortunately, the comedy is pretty lame, with lots of fart and food jokes, taking the sequel too far away from its source material into the realm of something entirely simulated and parodied. By reducing dangerous contract killers into bumbling klutzes, any shred of realism or toughness that The Executioner had is traded for laughs and gags—cheap ones, too. The trio trips over their feet, plays practical jokes on each other, and somehow always manages to mess the job up just enough to never get paid. They punch each other in the crotch, throw things at one another, and generally act like bumbling fools, light years away from the dangerous and bad-ass attitudes cultivated in the first film. This shift towards light comedy doesn't make the film worse, per se, since the films really are very different in tone. But it sure makes it more disposable and forgettable.
The plot boils down to basically a jewel heist and feels like a Japanese kung fu remake of The Pink Panther, with Inspector Clouseau gene-spliced into three Japanese men. The plot is amusing at times, but utterly preposterous, even within the context established by the first film. Despite being perpetually underpaid, the trio seems to have absurd resources at their disposal, like sniper rifles, dynamite, and Cessna airplanes. The Executioner was kind of stupid, too, but it had criminals helping the police to beat drug dealers out of Japan, which had an air of nobility and redemption about it. In Karate Inferno, the three break into vaults and steal jewels from wealthy heiresses for pure profit. Check your brain cells at the door, ladies and gentleman.
The special effects are horrendous. Of particular note are some laughably awkward airplane and helicopter sequences in which characters are superimposed in front of some of the lousiest blue screen work you will ever see. As for fight sequences, you can forget about it. As mentioned, the film eschews those in favor of stupid comedy, seriously challenging the film's kick-ass namesake. Still, Karate Inferno earns its name with some decent sequences towards the end and people hurled off rooftops. Unfortunately, all the capering and heisting of the film wastes an hour out of an 85-minute film, which doesn't leave much time for the bone-breaking.
Fans of The Executioner may get some mileage out of Karate Inferno, but the sequel is definitely not up to par with the original. More of a screwball comedy than a martial arts film, it can be good for a chuckle if you're in the mood for something preposterous.
The transfers for all three films occupy that uncomfortable position between good and bad. I appreciate the restoration work and clean image in comparison to earlier, crappier DVD releases, but I'm trying to ignore the fact that the picture still doesn't look very good. Both The Executioner and The Executioner II have had some pretty shoddy appearances on DVD, and fans will be happy to see these nice anamorphic pictures, with solid black levels and detail. Unfortunately, the source material still looks fairly rough around the edges, some print damage is still evident, and colors are still fairly murky and muted. At the end of the day, given the production value and preservation, this will probably be the best these films ever look.
The music in these three films is a fantastic amalgamation of styles and funkiness, a blend of 1970s funk and dance intermixed with unfamiliar Japanese melodies that is sure to tickle the fancy of any music aficionado. In particular, the Executioner films have the craziest music, a bodacious amalgamation of horns, high hats, and fuzz pedals. The Executioner II has big bongo drums and fills, like a funky Japanese recreation of the theme music from Hawaii Five-O, complete with jive dancing go-go girls. If you're not hip to this, you're not hip at all, brother!
All three films have their original mono presentations in Japanese, and only Killing Machine has a remixed 5.1 channel. Previous versions of these films only contained a goofy English dub, so it is nice to see the original track finally available. The original tracks sound as good as one can hope—screeching trebles and murky bass response, but clear dialogue, minimal hissing, and decent ambient distribution. I liked Killing Machine's 5.1 track and wish all three films could have received the treatment—better bass and clearer details.
Like many of BCI Eclipse's releases, this three-pack box set is simply a re-release of Adness single disc releases. Normally, double-dipping is frowned upon, but, to my knowledge, neither Executioner film is currently in print, so Lethal Chiba is as a good value—especially when considering the lousy transfers previous releases from other studios had.
Extras, as with previous box set releases, are negligible: only a half-dozen trailers.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Let's be honest here: Killing Machine isn't very good and Karate Inferno has a fantastic name, but is a profoundly stupid movie. So, we've got three films at a decent bargain, but two of them aren't very good. As much as I liked the overall experience of these three films together, one part of my brain (you know, the part that isn't a crazy pre-pubescent fan boy) realizes my fallacy.
The way I figure it, this box set pays for itself by including good-looking versions of The Executioner and The Executioner II together in the same package, silly as they are. The fact that you get Killing Machine tossed in for nothing is pure frosting, my friend. Though none of these films personifies Chiba's best work, Lethal Chiba is a good value for anyone looking to quickly shoot a dose of fighting adrenaline into their DVD library.
I wish I could punch someone so hard that his eyeballs popped out. I would be very popular at the annual Judges Drinking Jamboree.
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What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
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Distinguishing Marks, The Executioner
Scales of Justice, Karate Inferno: The Executioner II
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Studio: BCI Eclipse
Distinguishing Marks, Karate Inferno: The Executioner II
Scales of Justice, Killing Machine
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