Reed’s Bargain Bin is a recurring column where Reed Farrington tells us about a movie he bought for under $5, and whether or not he regrets the purchase.
For those who think that the best martial arts films are the ones that star actual martial artists, I present to you two films that defy this categorization: Dark Assassin (2006) and The Fifth Commandment (2008). I wasn’t even going to bother reviewing these two films, but after watching the behind-the-scenes documentaries on each DVD, I found out that much effort and perseverance were involved in getting these films made. So I thought I would at least offer these films some recognition even though I won’t have many good things to say about them. However, discussing these films might be of some interest. And with the recent release of Ninja Assassin, I thought there might be an interest in assassin movies.
These two films actually have much in common both in the films themselves and in the behind-the-scenes details. Each film is set in a contemporary urban locale with hip hop music associated with it. Each film attempts to create an emotionally involving assassin redemption story to accompany the displays of martial arts. Each film got made through the vision of an Asian American martial artist who took it upon himself to make a film and took the roles of various creative positions in the film including writer and producer besides being the star. Each low-budget film raised funding independently. Each film has the hero in the story partnered with an African American. Each film has a strong African American actor attached to the film. And each film takes as its inspiration early action films from the ’70s.
Dark Assassin is set in Boston where Derek Wu (Jason Yee) has just been released from prison after having taken the fall for the local crime boss, Buddha. He wants to start a new life with his girlfriend and with the help of his best friend, Ray (Thomas Braxton Jr.). Meanwhile, Buddha’s men are systematically being killed by an assassin using an MO suspiciously similar to Wu’s previous MO. Both Buddha and a city detective suspect Wu is the killer.
The Fifth Commandment is set mainly in Bangkok where hired assassin Chance Templeton (Rick Yune) reconnects with an adopted brother, Miles (Bokeem Woodbine), who leads a team of bodyguards protecting a pop star, Angel (Dania Ramirez). Through a course of events, Chance finds himself protecting Angel, who was originally assigned to Chance as an intended target. Chance’s mentor and father-figure, Max Templeton (Keith David), who had rescued Chance after Chance’s parents were killed by another assassin, Z (Roger Yuan), must be called in to clean up the mess. Z is the replacement assassin sent in to kill Angel! (The story is more straightforward in the film. I tried to make it more exciting in my summary, but if you’re confused, I don’t blame you.)
(Note that the tagline of The Fifth Commandment is â€œThou Shalt Notâ€¦.â€ This is of course a reference to the Bible’s Ten Commandments, but if you’re not Catholic or Lutheran, then you might think that the title of the movie is wrong since in other religions, the Fifth Commandment is Honor Thy Father, not Thou Shalt Not Kill. Actually, honoring your father is a theme in the movie. I don’t know if the double meaning in the choice of title was intentional, but it’s a nice coincidence.)
Jason Yee is a producer, writer, director and star of Dark Assassin. According to his web-site, he is an â€œALL-AROUND CHAMPION â€“ The only athlete to ever win major titles in forms, weapons & full-contact fighting.â€ He is a â€œpioneer of San-Shou Kick-boxing in the US.â€ Through his initiative and martial arts connections, he was able to assemble a film-making team and obtain martial artist Cung Le as a villain in the film. He managed to make the film with a budget of 80 grand. In the Making Of documentary, he credits his mother, or maybe it was his aunt, with cooking food for the entire production. Yee’s real-life grandfather plays a Hong Kong crime boss in the film. Yee humbly acknowledges that the film won’t be winning any awards soon, yet the DVD cover indicates that the film won the Best Action Feature award at the New York International Independent Film & Video Festival. (I should note that Yee bears a passing resemblance to Bruce Lee. Some of his facial expressions are Lee-like.)
Rick Yune is an executive producer, producer, writer and star of The Fifth Commandment. He was a competitive martial artist in Taekwondo and was a serious contender for the US Olympics team as a student. He is most familiar to movie-going audiences as the villain Zao in the James Bond film, Die Another Day. He also plays Takeshi in the recent Ninja Assassin. Yune had his own trading firm and with his partners, decided to manage Hedge Row funds in order to finance The Fifth Commandment. Since he already had some contacts in the movie industry through his acting roles, he was put in touch with Jesse Johnson, the director. (I don’t recognize the other action/martial arts B-movies that Johnson has directed. From a featurette on the DVD, Johnson comes across as highly knowledgeable about films.) The fighting in the film is based on the 52 blocks fighting system, which was developed in American prison systems.
I don’t know where the strong relationship in martial arts between Asians and African Americans came from, but I always admired the bond between Bruce Lee and the African American community. (Or is this strong relationship only my perception?) Bruce Lee was color blind when it came to the students he taught, and he freely acknowledged the influence of boxers like Muhammad Ali on his fighting style. In Dark Assassin, Derek’s best friend is an African American. I’m not sure if it’s Yee’s inexperience in acting, but when Derek communicates homie style with Ray, it seems strange to me. In The Fifth Commandment, Chance’s relationships with his African American adopted brother and father seem rather stilted, and I’m sure the failure is totally with Yune unless he was trying to create a detached character on purpose. Maybe this is going to sound racist, but perhaps the use of African American characters in both films was an excuse to use hip hop music in the films. Of course, maybe it’s just coincidence. I do think Jet Li’s roles in Romeo Must Die and Cradle 2 the Grave were conscious attempts to meld the martial arts with the popularity of hip hop.
As a character that appears in Derek’s dreams in Dark Assassin, Tony Todd doesn’t have much to do except act menacing. You might know Todd as the Candyman. Of course, I know Todd from his role as Worf’s younger brother, Kurn, in Star Trek: The Next Generation. In the Star Trek universe, he is also widely admired for his sensitive portrayal of an older Jake in the Deep Space Nine episode, “The Visitor,” an episode that the readers of TV Guide once voted as the best ever episode of any Star Trek series!
At the beginning of The Fifth Commandment, Keith David’s screen presence is palpable, and I thought the film would be great. As an unexpected lesson in the requisite master/pupil teaching scenes in this type of story, Max Templeton tells Chance that it is inevitable as an assassin that he will be shot. And then he shoots him. Unfortunately, the film loses its intensity once it focuses on Chance. I consider Keith David to be the poor man’s Samuel L. Jackson. And Keith David even has a longer list of acting credits. I don’t know what role most people would know him by. I don’t even know if he’s been given star billing in any role.
With the popularity of Wuxia films in the past decade, there has been a backlash against the fanciful wire-fu display of martial artists flying through the air. Many people including Yee and Yune have a yearning for the more earthbound action/martial arts films with a lone character meting out punishment. Yee has mentioned films from the ’70s like Shaft as an influence. Yune has mentioned films like The Professional, Rambo, and Star Wars where Han Solo redeems himself by flying in to the rescue. In Dark Assassin, Yee does an homage to a short sequence from Enter the Dragon and he is quite impressive. The rest of the fighting and weapon handling is competent, but there’s nothing that I haven’t seen before. Unfortunately, there’s some noticeably sped up action that ruins the earned credibility. With The Fifth Commandment, Yune’s fighting skills are also not impressive to watch. This film also includes a car chase, explosions, and stunts like parachuting off a building, but it’s all stuff I’ve seen elsewhere. Neither film manages to generate much emotional response from me although I can see they’re trying. The writing is rather pedestrian, and the inexperience of the acting leads probably doesn’t help.
Credit must be given to Yee and Yune for getting their films completed and then for getting major DVD distribution. Dark Assassin is distributed by Alliance Atlantis in Canada. The Fifth Commandment is distributed by Sony Pictures in both the US and Canada.
Although neither film has garnered much critic or fan appreciation, it’s good to see that neither Yee nor Yune have been deterred from their efforts to bring martial arts to the screen. Jason Yee has a new film set for release next year called The Girl from the Naked Eye. He has relinquished the directorial duty, but he stars as Jake, who goes on a manhunt when his friend, the titular girl from The Naked Eye, ends up dead. I guess revenge will be a mainstay for martial arts films. And although it looks like Yune has decided to stay out of the pressure ridden production side, he continues to act and has a role in the recent Ninja Assassin.
I doubt if Dark Assassin will be remembered in the future unless Yee manages to attain stardom. But I suspect The Fifth Commandment will at least be known temporarily as the film that introduced Boo Boo Stewart, who briefly plays the young Chance. Did his performance manage to impress me? Not really. But he has a role as Seth Clearwater in next year’s The Twilight Saga: Eclipse.
Amount I paid: $2.00.
Bargain bin rating: $1.00.
The Fifth Commandment
Amount I paid: $1.66.
Bargain bin rating: $1.10.