espite 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.