Stephen reviews: Fist of the North Star (1995)

Starring Gary Daniels, Malcolm McDowell, Costas Mandylor, Downtown Julie Brown, Dante Basco, Nalona Herron, Melvin Van Peebles, Clint Howard, Chris Penn, Andre Rosey Brown, Isako Washio, Paulo Tocha

Directed by Tony Randel

Now what on Earth am I doing reviewing a live-action American film, you might ask. Well, if your memory reaches back a few weeks, you might remember my review of the anime Fist of the North Star, and this is the live-action adaptation of the series, though not specifically of that 1986 film. It claims to be the first Hollywood adaptation of an anime, and in the absence of any contrary evidence, I’m not going to argue.

The use of the word “Hollywood” implies an impressive big-budget production, but that really isn’t the case. Kill Bill this ain’t. You’re also probably questioning if a live-action American film could possibly capture the spirit of an anime, especially one as absurd as Fist of the North Star. Obviously you can’t expect to see a 20-foot-tall giant turn his skin into steel and trample an entire army. And since shit like that is the main draw of the anime title, you have to go into this version with some vastly different expectations.

Fortunately, I kept that in mind when entering this film. And even more fortunately, the film does a good job of translating the story and setting into live action. I do want to take a moment to mention the set design, which is great. It’s clearly not the highest budget film around, but it does a great job of creating a dark and gritty post-apocalyptic setting. North Star always had a post-apocalyptic setting, but this film makes it feel downright dismal and oppressive in a way that the anime couldn’t muster; it was just too absurd to be taken seriously. But the live-action film has a heavier and more serious story that matches up well with the setting.

It’s still the same concept: Kenshiro gets beaten up by Shin, who steals his girl and now Kenshiro is out for vengeance. This version, however, places a greater emphasis on Ken’s role as a hero destined to save the world, and more specifically his desire to avoid all that and just track down Shin, but then getting caught up in the need to protect people along the way. The anime focused pretty much entirely on his quest for revenge, and helping out the innocent was something of a side effect.

Shin gets a far bigger role here than he did in the anime film, where he was almost a minor character. Ken’s brothers however, who were the primary villains in the anime, are pretty much absent. Raoh is nowhere to be found, and Jagi — renamed Jackal for this film — has no relation to Ken at all. Also missing is Ken’s buddy Rei, who was one of my favorite characters from the anime. But these omissions allow the film to focus more heavily on one part of the story and do it justice, rather than bounce through the plot points as fast as possible.

Don’t expect an Oscar-worthy script or anything. Malcolm McDowell tries his best to be Obi-Wan Kenobi, but the muddled metaphors about water flies and denying destiny aren’t going to be inspiring anyone. Nor is Jackal’s speech that ends with, “I did not write these words! But I feel them!” I felt Chris Penn was especially inappropriate for his role as Jackal. He carried an air of near incompetence, and he just couldn’t convince me that he was capable of being Shin’s second in command, either through brains or brawn.

The casting as a whole was rather unbalanced, as only a few of the actors were clearly athletes. The rest looked like fat guys chosen for their size, which made the action sequences feel rather odd. What I do like about the cast, though, is the sheer diversity of ethnicities. There were plenty of Black and Asian major characters, and even the white guys had random accents. I doubt this was a deliberate choice, but it felt as if it really was a jumble of random survivors stuck together in a crumbling world, and that went a long way toward selling the world for me.

With the more down-to-Earth story, there is also a much more down-to-Earth feel to the action. Instead of gratuitous head explosions, we get far more conventional martial arts battles. They’re not the most impressive fight scenes (remember: Kill Bill this ain’t), but they are plenty of fun, and they do a good job of keeping the film entertaining.

There are actually only two exploding heads in the entire film, and they don’t really count as such. One of them happens off-screen, and the other is really just spurting blood everywhere. This is pretty disappointing as head bursting is a hallmark of the franchise, but, as I said, you have to go into this film with a different set of expectations. On the plus side, there are some great practical effects for the gore, even if it isn’t as extreme as the anime. Those heads don’t pop wide open, but the FX for the expanding and pulsating flesh are fantastic, as are the effects for the poor saps that start spurting blood out of their elbows.

There’s even a great zombie in the mix too, but it was probably the biggest disappointment in the film. As much as I wanted it to throw down against Kenshiro, all it did was berate him before disappearing. Man, that would have been awesome to have a zombie martial arts battle, no matter how poorly choreographed. Actually, poor choreography might have made it even better. Sadly, we’ll have to wait for another film to realize that amazing concept.

This may not be a great film, but it made a lot of great decisions about how to adapt an anime to live action, and the end result was mostly enjoyable. I’m sure anime purists will be appalled by the differences, but really, this was never going to be an exact replica of the anime, and if it had tried it would only have been a miserable failure. Instead we got a film that did a pretty good job as an entertaining martial arts film while having enough of the wild blood and guts of the original to feel like the name still applies. It’s not as entertaining as the anime film, but it still has enough to make it worth watching.

8 comments to Stephen reviews: Fist of the North Star (1995)

  • Oh my God, this shit sounds incredible. Why haven’t I seen this before? Ah man, I’m so pumped to watch this movie. I think if I get some time I’ll watch the anime and then this to compare, because they both sound awesome.

    Literally everything you said about this one, good or bad, enticed me to see this. It’s also nice to read your thoughts on a low-budget movie. They don’t get the credit they deserve oftentimes, so I’m glad to see you taking it for what it is and enjoying it. And from the sound of it, there’s plenty to enjoy!

  • I was surprised by how good it was. I expected it to be what I mentioned in the last paragraph, a pathetic attempt to take all the wrong elements form the anime and ruin it. Instead they took all the right elements and filled in the gaps with their own stuff, and it stands on its own quite well.

    And as you allude too, even when it fails it does so in a humorous way, so I had fun with the whole thing. I just wish I had kept the disc around a bit longer so I could jot down the nicknames scattered through the credits. I can’t remember any of them now, but there were a ton, and they were pretty funny sometimes.

    • Sounds great, and I’m glad it turned out well. It could have easily gone the other way!

      Ah man, I love credit nicknames! Seriously, everything you say about this makes me want to see it!

  • Ah man, I liked this quite a bit. It was a lot of fun and really adapted the story, setting and feel of the anime well. Definitely needed more gore, but everything else was pretty well realized. Those head explosions that aren’t head explosions are really disappointing, although your warnings made it so that I didn’t care so much. Man, but the blood spurting out of people’s arms and bodies looked great!

    I liked Chris Penn in this, if only because he was always a source of batshit crazy. I think that’s how this guy ascended to 2nd in command, through sheer craziness and an ability to take everything to an extreme. I loved his sadistic pep talk too.

    And Gary Daniels is awesome! It’s always nice to see someone with real martial arts skills in a martial arts movie and he has so many dope looking kicks in this movie. He was in a HK Jackie Chan movie called City Hunter (and went toe-to-toe with Jackie in the famous Street Fighter character fight), but when I saw that back in the day I didn’t know it was him. I thought the choreography was pretty good for the most part, it was just shot kind of inconsistently. There’d be some great moments, but inevitably the editing or the camera would fuck something up. Not to mention the end fight devolving from fun martial arts to American-style wrestling and bashing heads into glass objects. But that’s OK, cuz it’s all fun.

    And my favorite credit nickname was: Joe “The Creep” Arnold.

  • Stephen

    Yeah, the blood spurting was awesome! And I like your explanation for Chris Penn. It works better than anything I can think of anyway.

    I also liked that it didn’t turn out to be a generic damsel in distress ending, and Julia (Did they change her name for the live action one? I can’t remember.) managed to rescue herself in the end.

    Holy what?! They made a live action City Hunter? The anime has been on my to do list for a long time, and I had no idea there was a live action adaptation. IMDB sells it as a goofy comedy, and the anime never looked that way. With Jackie Chan I can’t be sure, but I’m guessing it was just marketed that way for Americans who expect him to do nothing but comedy. Still, now I’m more interested in checking it out.

    • Yeah she was Julia in this one. I saw the other one subtitled and I find it pretty nifty how her original name was Yuria. It seems almost natural to westernize that as Julia.

      Hahaha, yes there’s a live action City Hunter. It is most definitely a goofy comedy, by far Jackie’s goofiest, thanks mostly to it being directed by HK’s eminent goofy comedy director Wong Jing. As I remember it’s not the greatest movie, but it does have that fight I mentioned where Jackie is kicked into a Street Fighter arcade machine and then he hallucinates that they’re fighting as the Street Fighter characters, complete with accurate representations of the game’s moves and the real sound FX. If nothing else, it’s worth seeing for that fight alone, and I remember there being other good stuff about it but I’m at a loss to remember what. This obviously means that it’s been far too long since I’ve seen these JC movies, so it makes me even more excited to start the Jackie series in January.

      • Stephen

        Well, that might make a good segue into Jackie Chan films. That Street Fighter scene sounds awesome. And whenever I do get around to seeing the anime version, I’ll have to check out the live action one for comparison.

        • I would be interested in your take on the two films. As a teenager, coming to City Hunter as purely a Jackie fan, it sticks out as a weird, unfulfilling movie, but perhaps it’s a great live-action adaptation!

          I am all stoked to watch City Hunter now, but I’m already locked in to do the Jackies chronologically. What can I say, it’s my thing! And I think I’m more excited to see the early Jackies that I never saw in my youth.

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