A total overload of extreme action!
Need a testosterone booster shot to mollify Jethro and Jim-Bob between WWF Smackdown and those infomercials hawking videos of "Backyard 'Rasslin'" and "Girls of Mardi Gras"? Boy howdy, do the friendly folks at Universal Home Video have a DVD for you! (And when the Deliverance twins have lolled off in a drooling stupor, you might even get a kick out of it yourself.)
Facts of the Case
Second in a series of compilation offerings under Universal's FlixMix brand (the first, Boogeymen, featured famous monsters from Filmland), Ultimate Fights serves up a 16-pack of action sequences from (mostly) well-known genre flicks, without any of that sissy stuff like plot and dialogue that only gets in the way of the flying fists and fusillades of gunfire. Weighted heavily toward martial arts (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and martial arts-influenced (Blade) films, the disc rockets from clip to clip faster than you can bellow "Let's get ready to RUM-BLE!" (which the ubiquitous Michael Buffer does, at the beginning of the feature).
There's a smattering of something for fans of every conceivable form of filmic combat to slaver over here, with nary a non-impact second in a slim 54-minute run time. Love Jackie Chan? You've got him (Legend of Drunken Master, Rumble In The Bronx). Dig Jet Li? He's here too (Black Mask, Fist of Legend). Jonesing for a little—dare I say it—Sly Stallone? A taste of First Blood for you, my friend. Like your Muscles from Brussels? We've got your wham-bam-van Damme right here (Timecop). Need a Bruce Lee fix? Um…sorry, no can do, but you get to watch the colorless Jason Scott Lee pretend to be him (Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story). Even the distaff contingent can swoon as Brad Pitt (Snatch), Russell Crowe (Gladiator), and Liam Neeson (Crossing the Line) sweat up the screen.
What more could you ask, really?
Clearly this disc wasn't made for the true cinema connoisseur interested in the artistry of fight choreography. If it were, would Universal subject us to the butchery of these classic (and in a couple of cases, not-so-classic) scenes into a hack-and-slash full-frame presentation? I think not, but at least this way they avoid the hostile, profane hate mail from the lowest common denominator who feel ripped off because of those infernal black bars across their TV screens. Only the sequence from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon escapes the pan/scan indignity; even Best Picture Oscar laureate Gladiator is afforded no mercy. Indeed, little attention was paid to the look of the films themselves in any respect. The Hong Kong films all show evidence of wear, and the older American-made films in the bunch (i.e. First Blood and Scarface) look especially tacky, as though battered videos rented from your local Blockbuster were used as the source prints (hey—that explains the pan-and-scan!). The sound is likewise unremarkable—given the presumed audience for this item, one would suppose that a few killer surround effects would enhance the experience. Not in the budget this trip, I guess.
The sequences are oddly chosen, no doubt with an eye toward boosting Universal product. Two of the scenes (from Brian DePalma's Scarface and John Woo's The Killer) aren't "fights" at all in the sense that the others are—they're over-the-top shootouts with a minimum of mano-a-mano, if any. And what's up with the half-baked girl-on-girl foolishness from The Players Club? "Fight," my sweet aunt. Also, far too many of the clips start in the middle of the action, without context or logical setup. Would it have been too much to expect that we'd get the whole scene from beginning to end, or did the DVD producer get a bonus for keeping the main program under an hour?
All is not lost, however. Apart from the above-noted exceptions, every scene delivers pretty much what it advertises. The pacing of Ultimate Fights is ratcheted up to a screamingly intense level, with gritty, flashy graphics to match, and the sole advantage of the too-short run time is that it leaves you hankering for more (the better to sell you more FlixMix discs, my dear). And there are some worthwhile supplemental goodies included.
"Behind the Punches" is a 10-minute featurette headlined by actor/stuntman James Lew, who appears as the bad guy in the main feature's Timecop clip. Lew and a duo of stunt fighters briefly demonstrate some of the techniques that go into making onscreen fisticuffs look realistic. It's a trifle on the dry and technical side, but informative nonetheless.
Better are Lew's "Fight Master Commentary" audio segments, with Lew providing his expert observations about each of the 16 scenes. Lew clearly knows his stuff, and his remarks are perceptive and enlightening—the best content on the disc. Often he has points to make not only about the way each scene was developed and filmed, but also about the fighting styles and martial arts backgrounds of the stars involved. It's obvious that Lew didn't just walk in cold and bluff his way through the recording session, which I'm sure he could have done, given his credits (which include stunt work and martial arts coordination on several John Carpenter films: Big Trouble In Little China, They Live—a scene from which is included here—and Escape from L.A.); he mentions interviewing several of the participants and fight coordinators involved in the featured scenes. For some bizarre reason, the disc producers didn't see fit to make Lew's commentary an alternate audio track with the main feature. You can only listen to his comments by shuffling scene by scene through a feature called "Fight Cards," which also offers useless statistics about each fight (number of blows landed, etcetera).
The running commentary track stars Hark Tsui, best known in America as the director of the Once Upon a Time in China series of films (unless you count a pair of execrable Van Damme vehicles, Knock Off and Double Team). Hark is somewhat more animated and less clinical in his approach than Lew, and he provides an entertaining commentary with a director's perspective. He is clearly more conversant with the Hong Kong films excerpted, but has interesting things to say about all of the scenes.
Ultimate Fights can also be viewed with "FlixFacts," a text-based commentary (written by someone who didn't know that Chinese surnames come before the given name) that inserts brief trivia snippets as subtitles as the main feature plays. I most enjoyed viewing the compilation with both the Hark audio track and the FlixFacts engaged. (I would have preferred James Lew's comments as a running audio track, but you can't have everything.)
The rest of the supplements, though numerous, don't add much value. There are 10 "Fighter Profiles": text bios of actors appearing in the compiled scenes. A "Name That Frame Game" shows stills from the featured films and challenges the viewer to identify the movie. Unless you went out for pizza or an extended bathroom break while the disc was running, this isn't much of a challenge. "My Top Five" lets you choose five of the scenes to play in whatever order you desire—fun, I suppose, for those who have yet to master the intricacies of the DVD remote. Something called "Ultimate Rumble TechnoMix" blares annoying electrobabble in lieu of the native audio of the fight scenes, destroying any remaining brain cells the viewer had left. There's an extensive collection of trailers, ten of which are for the films excerpted on the disc (though not the ones for which you might actually want to see trailers—Crouching Tiger, Blade or Snatch—'cause they aren't Universal films) and several that aren't (such as American Pie 2 and The Fast And The Furious). And a music video by the band Puddle of Mudd reminded me of those long-ago days before MTV when music was way more fun because you didn't actually have to look at the musicians.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
You can't honestly call something Ultimate Fights if you don't have a single scene featuring the cinema's greatest fight artist, Bruce Lee, but you do have a scene of a weak actor playing him. Even if you include a series of graphics at the end of the compilation that remind people Bruce Lee was film's greatest fighter. Spend a couple of bucks for the rights to at least one film by the Little Dragon, or don't use the word "ultimate."
Things are what they are, and not what they aren't. Ultimate Fights gives you more or less what you paid for—a handful of great-to-good fight scenes from the last twenty years of film history. The professional wrestling fan in your life (assuming you have one, and will admit it) or your favorite hardcore action flick junkie will play it until his eyeballs bleed. The cineaste in your life (assuming you don't have to look that word up) may find the commentaries by Lew and Hark worth a rental, if he or she can forgive the wretched pan-and-scan presentation of some fine film sequences.
Universal is found guilty of cynical, money-grubbing sensationalism. But then, that's what America's all about, isn't it?
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Scales of Justice
• Hark Tsui Audio Commentary
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