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Despite sporting a terrible title, Kane Kosugi’s “Muscle Heat” wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it would be. My Bad Action B-Movie Radar perked right up when I read about the film’s bad guy using something called a Muscle Dome where he pits fighters against one another for the amusement of the mindless masses. I’m not one to dislike a movie simply for using a gimmick that so many Bad Action B-Movies have done before it, but this whole Tournament Fighting genre has come and gone and now needs to be sealed away in the annals of history along with Jean Claude Van Damme’s dignity.
The renewed employment of the tiresome Tournament Fighting aside, “Muscle Heat” is the first film that I can recall which stars Kane Kosugi, son of the legendary Sho Kosugi. If you don’t know, American Action B-Movies of the ’80s were littered with the oeuvre of Sho Kosugi, a Japanese martial arts master who single-handedly popularized, but only to subsequently kill off, the Ninja Movie genre. Yes, it’s true — if I met the elder Kosugi tonight, I would fall to my knees in awe. The man is that awesome in my eyes.
“Muscle Heat” stars the younger Kosugi as Joe, an American-Japanese soldier who, as the film opens, is stewing in an American military jail for having disobeyed orders during a mission. Released by Japanese Detective Katsuragi (Sho Aikawa), the duo returns to Japan to take on druglord Kenji (Masaya Kato), who is flooding the world with a new drug called Blood Heat. The drug is so bad that Katsuragi doesn’t even bother with the law anymore, and along with Joe, they take the fight right to Kenji. Unfortunately Katsuragi manages to get himself killed in Kenji’s infamous Muscle Dome, leaving Joe to continue the battle alone.
There’s nothing wrong with “Muscle Heat” that a lot of scenes of Kane Kosugi kicking in teeth and sending opponents flying across a room with a powerful kick can’t cure. And that (fortunately or unfortunately, depending on why you watched this movie in the first place), is where “Muscle Heat” makes its bones. While director Shimoyama Ten and the screenwriters attempt to engage us in a world where the Japanese Government casts immigrants aside to a rundown Industrial stretch of land where they’re free to kill each other without governmental interference, all I wanted was to see more of Joe kicking in some more teeth. Is that so wrong?
If I were to take the movie’s screenplay seriously, I would, at this point, introduce to you all the things wrong with it. For one, if usage of the Blood Heat drug was as bad and rampant as the movie keeps telling us it is, then why is it that we only see the fighters in Kenji’s Muscle Dome use the drug? The drug apparently causes people to become aggressive, which is the only reason the fighters take it in the first place. In which case, besides the fighters in the Muscle Dome, who exactly are the customers for this little rage-inducing elixir? The movie talks too much about the drug, but never shows its supposed effects on the general populace.
As a straight action film, “Muscle Heat” is entertaining enough that I was never bored. It’s when the film tries to lure us into its “world” that the whole thing bogs down. The second half introduction of a love interest for Joe by way of actress Makoto Takenaka seems unnecessary, as well as the presence of Noboru Kaneko as some sort of resistance fighter living underneath the Industrial section. And while Kane Kosugi could probably use more acting lessons, he’s not nearly as stiff or incoherent as his other fellow action stars. Of course it helps that Kane has been acting since he was a child in many of his father’s early movies.
So go into “Muscle Heat” for the intense and pulse-pounding action and the slick high productions values, but don’t expect anything beyond that. Like the screenplay’s treatment of the Blood Heat drug, parts of the movie that doesn’t involve Kane kicking someone across the room is better glossed over.
Shimoyama Ten (director) / Tetsuya Oishi, Kongoh (screenplay)
CAST: Kane Kosugi …. Joe Jinno
Sho Aikawa …. Det. Katsuragi
Masaya Kato …. Kenji
Makoto Takenaka …. Akane