Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Film Review: BLOODSPORT 4: THE DARK KUMITE (1999, Elvis Restaino)

Stars:  – of ∞ Dark Kumites.
Running Time: 100 minutes.
Tag-line: "Undercover on death row... the final contest is about to begin."
Notable Cast or Crew: Daniel Bernhardt (BLOODSPORT 2, JOHN WICK), Ivan Ivanov (THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER, DERAILED), Lisa Stothard (DUMB AND DUMBER, KINGPIN), Stefanos Miltsakakis (CYBORG, MAXIMUM RISK), Jeff Moldovan (THE PATRIOT, MIAMI VICE), Michael Krawic (THE X-FILES, GHOSTS OF MARS), Derek McGrath (the psychopathic "Andy Andy" on CHEERS).  Written by George Saunders (not that George Saunders, as far as I know).  Directed by Elvis Restaino (first time director and production designer of PLAYBOY: WOMEN OF WAL-MART).  Produced by Alan Mehrez (BLOODSPORT 2, CYBORG 3: THE RECYCLER). 
Best One-liner: See review.

Once a generation, there comes a film that is not quite a film––it is moreso an objet d'video, a collage of ego and confusion, a jumble of faces and images loosely articulated into something impersonating traditional entertainment.  It is not your garden variety "bad movie," no, for there is something special and indescribable at its core––it is not unlike an alien intelligence just beyond our understanding, a transmission from a deep and lonely planet.  Perhaps it is a Morse code tapped out from a secret bunker or a crumpled note passed in an insane asylum...   MOONWALKER was such a film.  THE ROOM was such a film.  FOR Y'UR HEIGHT ONLY was such a film.  And BLOODSPORT 4: THE DARK KUMITE is such a film.

You likely know already that Cannon Films' BLOODSPORT was a masterpiece.  And you may know that lightning struck twice with BLOODSPORT 2: THE NEXT KUMITE [which is one of the most entertaining action movies of the 1990s––and made possible by a surprisingly great ersatz-Van Damme (Daniel Bernhardt) and Donald Gibb's "Jackson"].

BLOODSPORT III ain't exactly a magnum opus, but Bernhardt continues to be likable, John Rhys-Davies slums it, and there's a Double-Split Slap-Battle.  That says "worth the price of admission" from where I'm standing.

Then comes BLOODSPORT 4: THE DARK KUMITE (made by the same producorial team as parts 2 and 3) which collapses reality onto itself and begins from scratch in a different dimension, inexplicably shedding itself of Daniel Bernhardt's Kumite-winner "Alex Cardo" (hero of BLOODSPORTs 2 & 3) and replacing him with "John Keller," also played by Bernhardt, who is a tough cop and underground Kumite connoisseur.

Junta Juleil reader and BLOODSPORT-sequel-enthusiast AnonyMike did a fine job of describing this experience as "An episode of New York Undercover channeled through Schindler's List via Caligula in a spiritual sequel to WMAC Masters as directed by Uwe Boll."  I will add that it's as if Peter Greenaway and Alejandro Jodorowsky were co-directing an acid house music video in an Eastern Orthodox church but then, after pre-production was completed, they were informed that it would instead be a feature-length, Z-grade remake of DEATH WARRANT carrying the BLOODSPORT banner.

And what a banner it is.

Set in America and filmed in Bulgaria with a mostly Bulgarian cast and pounding with the pulse of Bulgarian house music,

Pictured: "America."

it feels less like a movie and more like the solution to an equation that disproves the existence of the universe.  I think that a "Dark Kumite" must be sort of like "dark matter" in that it cannot be seen or proved or easily understood, but that the foundation of the cosmos just might depend on it being held in check.  For many, watching BLOODSPORT 4 is simply Too Much To Take, like spending time in Orwell's "Room 101" or fully contemplating the mysteries of Cthulhu or looking too deeply into Nietzsche's Abyss.  All I can say as a word of warning is, "Take Heed, My Friends."  But I might as well just tell you not to stick the Q-tip all the way into your ear canal; you're probably just going to do it anyway.

As I mentioned previously, Jean-Faux Van Damme (Daniel Bernhardt) plays a man who subsidizes his Kumite addiction with a policeman's salary.  We are introduced to him while he performs in some sort of baroque Kumite arena where he is encouraged by the crowd to kill his opponent.  He counters by giving a speech about the integrity of the Kumite and manages to name-check BLOODSPORT.

Truly, the Kumite is dead if that extra on the left is more interested in creeping on the actress' reaction shot than the full-contact extravaganza a mere twenty feet below.

I hope you enjoyed that, because there's not going to be any Kumite action for a long while.  We depart the arena with a classic Kumite hug-it-out moment

"This slugfest just turned into a hugfest." ––not an actual line of dialogue

and are introduced to three new characters: two of Keller's police colleagues and, most importantly, a lucky pen.

I'm not joking.  The pen is given more character background than any human actor in the film––an entire monologue––and that's important, because that pen has an enormous amount of screen-time.  The pen's owner, "Officer Rita" (Linda Kouleva) becomes involved in a hostage scenario, held at gunpoint by escaped prisoner "Schrek" (Stefanos Miltsakakis).  Jean-Faux Van Bernhardt comes late to the party (post-Kumite cool-down) for one of those hackneyed standoffs where one character is shouting "Do it!  Take the shot!" and our hero can't decide what to do and attempts a look of tortured pathos while he aims his gun.
Jean-Faux Van Bernhardt does not take the shot, and though Schrek is out of ammunition, a lucky pen does just fine in a pinch, so he stabs Rita in the neck with it and flings her off a balcony. 

Stabbed with her own lucky pen!  That's incredible.  I feel like there ought to be a well-known idiom based on this, like "hoisted with his own petard," except, obviously, related to "stabbed with her own lucky pen."  It should be a little more succinct than that, though, perhaps a little more poetic.  One of the Romance languages should get on that right away.  I nominate the French or the Portuguese.  

Schrek is captured and Jean-Faux Van Bernhardt conducts an interrogation with the requisite homoerotic undertones.
Schrek isn't talking, though, and Jean-Faux Van Bernhardt becomes obsessed with the idea of how Schrek escaped prison in the first place, and how if he escaped once, he'll probably escape again.  I must take a moment here to reveal the delicious fact that the prison in question is called "Fuego Prison."  YES, I do approve.

In case we didn't understand that this is a capital-O obsession we're talking about, we see the following interaction between Jean-Faux Van Bernhardt and his partner (Lisa Stothard, kind of a poor man's Emmanuelle Seigner) while Bernhardt broods in the Eastern bloc jacuzzi that is installed in his home.

Because there is literally no other way to investigate a corrupt prison outside of committing murder and becoming an inmate, this is exactly what Jean-Faux Van Bernhardt does.  It is unclear if his murders (of two fellow cops) are real or staged.  This was apparently not important information to telegraph to the viewer.  Minus the storytelling incompetence, you will note that this is exactly the plot of the Jean-Claude Van Damme film, DEATH WARRANT.

During the sentencing, the director makes the bizarre and deliberate stylistic choice to compress the image so that all the faces are squeezed thin.  Do not adjust your television set.

As an aside, this is as good a time as any to reveal that the overall quality of filmmaking and acting is monumentally––indescribably––nay, epochally bad.  Harder to watch in toto than the bottommost dregs of the barrel at Full Moon Pictures, more stilted than the work of Andy Sidaris, with more basic incompetence than Ed Wood and worse pacing than anything Crown International Pictures ever shat out.  This is that weird kind of bad, where your friends start abandoning Bad Movie Night even though there's plenty of beer and pizza left, and despite the fact that everyone already signed up to watch a bad movie.  Who made this thing?  Who allowed this to happen?  Who filled it with the cheapo Ken Russell/Peter Greenaway-style tableaus

and peppered it with bizarro sex scenes immersed in Eastern Orthodox iconography?

Er wait––WHAT?!

The twist ending that BLOODSPORT 4 is actually an art film is a Bit Much To Take.

The author of this insanity is Elvis Restaino, an interior decorator and production designer who was permitted to try his hand at a BLOODSPORT movie.  It is a decidedly earnest attempt, and while it smacks of "student film," clearly a great deal of thought was put into the visuals and transitions and overall style.  Unfortunately, it's hampered by a miniscule budget, a hideous script, and the fact that "action filmmaking" is not Restaino's forte.  I was interested in learning more about this man, however, and discovered his official website.

From his (presumably self-written) bio:

He loves his dark roasted coffee beans freshly ground and percolated in the morning. Elvis is a tough man to miss in a crowd of people. His fashion style is distinctive, he is never seen without his triple Windsor knotted cravat that accents his piercing blue eyes.  Every morning he walks his dogs, makes his bed and is thankful for the freedom to create.  …so his circle widens.
Alright, well now he has officially endeared himself to me.  He sounds somehow like the halfway point between Agent Cooper from TWIN PEAKS and Lucio Fulci's scrappy brother.  I tip my hat to him.

Anyway, we enter Fuego Prison and re-encounter Shreck, who has inexplicably been allowed to hold on to the lucky murderin' pen.

Granted, it's a Corrupt Kumite Factory Prison, but still, you'd have thought the cops would have confiscated the murder weapon.  

During orientation, we're introduced to Files (Dennis LaValle) the deputy warden, who delivers the following quip––perhaps the greatest threat ever uttered on the silver screen, and certainly this film's finest one-liner:

"SCREW WITH ME, AND BY SWEET, SUNNY JESUS, I WILL USE YOUR PROSTATES AS GODDAMN TRAMPOLINES."  Does it allude to rape?  Does it allude to an ass-stomping so severe that it affects the prostate?  Does it reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of trampolines... or does it reflect a perfect understanding of trampolines?  I have been rendered speechless.  And thusly, BLOODSPORT 4 peaks.  There's nowhere else for it to go.  If only I had seen this back when it came out, I could have used that as my Senior quote in the annual.  

We also meet Warden Preston (Derek McGrath––the psychotic "Andy Andy" from a number of CHEERS episodes), who tells us, in considerably less colorful language, this old chestnut:
You may note that the Warden has snatched the lucky pen from Schrek and is wearing it prominently in his suit jacket pocket.  More on that later.

Not much further into the narrative, he repeats the sentiment: 
It is unclear if he repeats it for emphasis, or if the screenwriter/editor forgot he had used it already.  It is also worth mentioning that in a film chock full of terrible actors, Derek McGrath just might be the worst.  I like CHEERS, though.  CHEERS is good.

The majority of this film takes place in Fuego Prison, and Fuego is, ironically, where it's fire burns lowest.  For some reason, everybody's wearing concentration camp uniforms, which lends it an inappropriate, phony-SCHINDLER'S LIST vibe.

The director himself shows up as a whacky paper napkin-art enthusiast:

Jean-Faux Van Bernhardt's cop partner (Lisa Stothard) keeps turning up at visiting hours in a nun costume (which somehow fools the guards):

Maybe it's another Ken Russell reference.  I don't know.

And Jean-Faux Van Bernhardt is forced to train for the Kumite as a part of a wide-ranging, nefarious conspiracy:

Said conspiracy involves the mock-execution of prisoners via crucifixion-inspired lethal injection (Christ-inspired torture being a hallmark of JCVD and JFVB films):
after which they are resurrected at a Secret Kumite Mansion for fighting purposes.  Yeah, you heard me right.

The mastermind of all this is a character named "Caeser," which is like "Caesar," only more Bulgarian.

Don't believe me?  Check the end credits!

Anyway, Caeser (Ivan Ivanov) looks like a cross between Benjamin Franklin and Michael McKean, draped in snow leopard print fabric sold for $2.99 a yard at a Jo-Ann Fabrics from a seedy strip mall.

Ivan Ivanov in BLOODSPORT 4...

...compared to Ben Franklin... and Michael McKean in CLUE.  Ya see what I'm sayin'?

Now that he has access to legally "dead" prisoners with whom he can do whatever he wishes, the world is Caeser's oyster, or at least the Kumite is.  (Caeser was running the Baroque Kumite in the opening scene.)  He just lives for that sort of thing.  That, and lounging around his Secret Kumite Mansion with a harem of young ladies who have been felled like stairwell-ascending dominos while he sips on a girl drink made of PREDATOR blood.
 I genuinely appreciate this tableau.  Kudos, Elvis!

Finally, after a nearly unbelievable portion of the runtime has elapsed, the Kumite begins.
Caeser has the arena decked out like a Ren Faire, and the fact that it begins with a bizarre and lengthy floor show involving a court jester and a weird faux-Pavarotti does nothing to dispel this impression.
Yep, this is free-form performance art in a BLOODSPORT movie. 

This is still goin' on.  Pretty sure there was no choreographer.  Also, in the background, note the guards dressed like 1930s mobsters.  This is starting to feel like one of those community theater Shakespeare plays where the director says "Hey, let's set it in Fascist Europe!  No one ever thought of that before!"

And yet this would all be forgivable if it were well-executed.  Never let it be said that I'm opposed on principle to a little song n' dance with my Kumite. What kind of monster do you think I am?

Eventually, there is fighting portion of this Kumite, and it's fairly lackluster.  There's some leg extension 
and some guys in cages and so on.  But the magic is gone.
Jean-Faux Van Bernhardt bonds with the poor man's John Malkovich, who is dressed like a contestant on THE RUNNING MAN.  Huh.

Finally, Keller fights Schrek.  We don't really care anymore; we're just running down the clock.  At the end of the fight, Jean-Faux Van Bernhardt snatches the lucky pen from the Warden's pocket (you knew it'd come back around, didn't you!) and jams in in Schrek's ear so it can complete its hero's journey.

"I seem to have misplaced my pen," he says.

Over the end credits, we hear a new BLOODSPORT song.  It's not as good as the song from the end of Part 2, "The Rhythm of the Kumite," but is has a techno beat and somebody shouting "Blooooodsport!" over and over again.  So that's good, I guess.  I really don't know anymore.  THE DARK KUMITE is a mind-numbing experience.  I dare say it has put me in a... coma-te.

–Sean Gill