Thursday, December 16, 2010


Netflix is tricky sometimes. I'm sure they don't mean it, but sometimes they offer you one thing and give you another. That's what happened to me last night when I was browsing through their new arrivals. Something seemed funny about that 1950 film noir they were advertising as a free stream. The thumbnail art didn't look right. It looked like a long-haired guy screaming -- definitely not 1950 material. And wouldn't you know? Two reviewers on the actual page for the movie said it wasn't a noir at all. It didn't even have Laurence Tierney in it. Instead, it was a Seventies karate movie with a Nazi and a dwarf. Then the title rang a bell. Memories flooded back of a heavy-duty ad campaign that saturated TV when I was still a kid. They really put that film over as an event, and my curiosity was stoked, but I didn't have a chance to see it back then. But now I did.

Maybe those of you of my age remember the ad campaign. If so, maybe you remember further back to the Berlin Olympiad of 1941. Designed as a show of Axis solidarity and superiority, it ended in controversy surrounding the karate tournament. Baron Von Rudloff, captain of the silver-medal German team, accused the captain of the Japanese gold medalists, Mr. Miyagi (soft g, please) of bribing his compatriots into throwing their matches with diamonds. Unfortunately for the Baron, der Fuehrer wasn't interested in excuses. Rudloff was kicked off the team, stripped of his rank and dishonorably discharged. For more than thirty years afterward, the German nursed his grudge.

"Don't make me come down there!" Norman Coombes presides over the school of hard knocks in Kill or Be Killed.

Sometime in the 1970s, Rudloff reigns over a karate school in the middle of a South African desert from the vantage of the tower of his toylike castle -- the thing looks like it's made of Styrofoam. His most trusted lieutenant and confidant is Chico the dwarf, whom the Baron rescued from the humiliations of circus life. Now he's humiliated by the karate students, especially when he takes out his old circus hand puppet and reminisces about the past. But he humors the Baron's dream of staging a new Karate Olympiad in his own stadium, an exact reproduction of the surprisingly spartan venue Albert Speer designed for the 1941 extravaganza, and avenging his own humiliation at the hands and diamonds of the dread Miyagi.

"We were just sparring, Herr Baron." Chico (Daniel DuPlessis, right) and friend.

One of the Baron's students isn't quite with the program. Steve (James Ryan) apparently didn't have a problem with learning martial arts from a strutting, ranting uniformed Nazi originally, but he's starting to grow impatient and disgruntled with the situation. He wants to know what they're training for, but his attitude only gets him into fights with more loyal students. Steve's feelings for Rudloff's one female student, Olga, are the only thing keeping him in the desert. But once the Baron at last announces the purpose of their training, having lured Miyagi into accepting the challenge with smuggled diamonds, and then tells Olga that she can't be on the team and has to leave, Steve wants to go with her. They manage to flee together, with some sneaky help from a sympathetic Chico, in a battered Volkswagen. But Steve's car fu proves very poor, and the karate couple find themselves stranded in the desert. Their solution: dismantle the car, raise a big, fortunately available hunk of canvas on a mast attached to the chassis and sail to civilization.

Meanwhile, the Baron doesn't yet have a full 20-man team fit to fight Miyagi's picked squad. He sends Chico around the world to recruit the best remaining karate men. The dwarf's journey is filmed with magazine and book illustrations of London, just as Rudloff's hysterical flashback of World War II earlier in the picture was portrayed with cutouts and recordings of Hitler rants. Chico goes straight to the nearest karate school, but the teacher rebuffs him with proverbs. That forces him to recruit more creatively. We find him in a junkyard, where he's ready to make an offer to a dude who happens to be sitting in a jalopy with his pals and can bust a cinder block with his head. Turns out he'd already signed with Miyagi. This happens to Chico a lot, even in New York, when he makes an offer to an acrobatic mugger. Strangely, his quest for the kings of karate never takes him to Japan, but when you consider that he's only offering $5,000 ("plus expenses")to each prospect, his budget, like the movie's, was obviously limited.

At the same time, Rudloff still wants Steve on his side. Once the fact of Steve's attachment to Olga finally sinks in on the old Nazi, he regrets expelling her from his school. A repentant Rudloff now orders one of his goons to kidnap her. The goon surprises Olga in the middle of a lesson from her new, personal, private, female karate instructor -- she'd shooed Steve away for some reason. There ensues perhaps the most gratuitously destructive episode of fight-scene vandalism since the Jonathan Winters-Arnold Stang gas-station battle in It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World as the goon smashes a piano, a guitar, statuary, a TV set, etc in a protracted effort to subdue Olga. Eventually he succeeds, leaving Steve to discover an empty, devastated house. Rudloff's strategy works -- sort of. Steve enters the tournament, but on Miyagi's team, the Japanese having somehow convinced Steve that it'd be easier to infiltrate the Baron's dungeon and free his girl if he joins the enemy side.

"We were just sparring, whoever you are." Olga (Charlotte Michelle, left) and friend. Below, the Baron's goon perpares to El Kabong himself in an intimidating display of stupidity.

Once the tournament gets under way, after a round of feasting and dwarf entertainment, and proves quite an even affair, with fighters on both sides equally willing to cheat, the Baron decides to make the best of a bad situation. Determined to restore his honor by winning at all costs, he tells Steve to throw his fights if he hopes to see Olga again. Steve is too proud to do that, but Rudloff's prize specimen, the hulking Luke, seems quite capable of beating our hero anyway. Since these are supposed to be death matches -- a detail the film occasionally loses track of -- the Baron would just as soon see Steve die. But Chico, still remembering Steve and Olga's kindness, convinces his master to spare Steve so he can "suffer" more later.

"Gooble gobble, gooble gobble, we accept you..."

Eventually, the tournament gets out of the Baron's control as more fighters on both sides object to his, well, Nazi-like dominance. Tiring of it all himself, Rudloff has his Foreign Legion-outfitted guards herd all the karate men into two adjoining cells. And here he made his great mistake, and an inconceivable one for one so devoted to the power of the open hand. Put a few dozen guys whose hands and feet are deadly weapons in two cells separated by a wall and what are they going to do? They're going to punch and kick that wall into oblivion, of course, and then they're going to combine their strength into approximately one Hercules-unit of power, enough to bend the cell bars so they can all escape. So remember: the next time you stage a karate tournament, make sure your dungeon has solitary confinement for everyone.

The movie won't end this easily...

Seeing a rebellion break out, Rudloff, Chico and Luke pack Olga into their car and flee into the desert. Steve commandeers a vehicle to pursue him, but his car-fu is as bad as ever. In an automotive answer to drunken boxing, however, he turns obstacles into shortcuts, flipping and barrel-rolling his wreck until he blocks the Baron's escape route. Somehow he's capable of crawling out and engaging Luke in a final battle as the Baron watches and Chico holds a gun on the Baron. Strangely, the story ends with the Nazi and the dwarf, with Rudloff given the choice between revenge on his betrayers and the Spellbound finish....

According to Wikipedia, director Ivan Hall filmed Kill or Be Killed in South Africa in 1977 -- belying the ad assertion that it was "The Greatest Hollywood Martial Arts Film Ever Made," --but the film wasn't released for another three years. Then, on the strength of the U.S. ad campaign, the movie went over big enough to justify a sequel, Kill and Kill Again. Having watched it, I can understand why someone might have thought the film unreleasable. Most of what little budget Hall had went to hiring fighters; the castle looks like the sort of thing you rent for birthday parties. The "location" work is worse than a joke. The writing is witless, especially when it aspires to wit.

Rudloff: It seems that Asians never age...
Miyagi: Only today, now, is important.
Rudloff: But my letter reached you in the past.
To be answered by the present person...

There's also something slightly offensive in the idea that two teams combining the best karate men on earth, one of them coached by a Japanese person (played by a Chinese person who looks just a little like Dana Carvey), don't appear to have a single Asian between them. They manage to have a black man, after all, and this is apartheid South Africa -- one of the few places, I imagine, where unrepentant Nazis could parade about more or less openly. But apart from the black guy, the fact that so many of the fighters look alike confuses the film a bit. It's hard to tell all the shirtless dudes with similar hairstyles apart. On the other hand, they're all legitimate karate men, and they strongly enhance the movie's entertainment value by beating the crap out of one another with gusto. The violence is on a strictly PG level (by 1980 standards), but it looks convincingly brutal when perpetrated by guys who probably beat one another up on a daily basis. The fights are constructed more through editing than choreography, and the editing is often pretty choppy, but the action is consistently energetic enough to keep you watching.

James Ryan is a wiry, acrobatic, intense and loud performer. His accent seems right when you're used to hearing martial artists talk in vaguely Anglo tones, and his amplified battle cries (they often sound like, "YEAHHHH!!!") are almost unsettlingly enthusiastic. He's perhaps too fond of his signature move of leaping, flipping and boxing his opponent's ears, but that does make a cool visual. While Kill or Be Killed was meant to make him a star, Ryan is inevitably overshadowed by the Nazi and the dwarf. Chico is Daniel DuPlessis's only film role, if we can trust IMDB, and he makes the most of it. But he and everyone else is eclipsed by Norman Coombes's instinctively berserk performance as Baron von Rudloff.

The only fault I can find with this sort of exploitation star turn is that Coombes's big scene comes way too early in the picture, as the camera does a 360 around him as he sieg-heils and rants about his past humiliations ("I vas DISHONORABLY DISCHARGED!!!") in a still weed-covered stadium. Looking somewhat like Sean Connery in The Hunt for Red October and sporting a range of costumes from Gestapo chic to suspenders over bared chest for desert training, Coombes is all bonus for a project like this one. You can even forgive the fact that this karate fanatic never actually fights in the picture, so that there's never a proper showdown between villain and hero. Without Coombes, Kill or Be Killed is just another tournament movie, with less variety of fighting styles than most. With him, it's on another heroically weird level, and those who travel the wild world of cinema seeking fresh frissons of weirdness may find some in the White Castle in the desert of Ivan Hall's imagination.

The only vestige of the TV ad campaign I could find online was this 9-second spot uploaded to YouTube by robatsea2009. Maybe it'll jog some memories.


Anonymous said...

God I love this movie. Fighting film meets slipstream art film. Tons of fun. James Ryan rules!

Sean said...

Definitely a favorite! After much scouting, found a copy reasonably priced on DVD, and have viewed several times. First watched it when hitting the theater many years back. Used to think of it from time to time. It's often the imperfect films that bare resonance with me, sporting unusual charm.