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The queen of candy-colored Rococo – and frou frou dresses Julia Nishimura and her revolving cast of sharply dressed men (generally referred to as princes) are back. On their debut "Birth Of Romance" Cross Vein played completely over-the-top flowery power metal that sounded like a perfect synthesis of Italian – and Scandinavian variations of the genre, "Royal Eternity" continued largely in the same vein, but hinted at a more measured approach. "Gate Of Fantasia" fully capitalized on their newfound restraint and was significant for exactly the same reason. “True Castle” – surely a stopgap EP to whet our appetite for their fourth album – harkens back more to the pre-“Gate Of Fantasia” days and offers two new songs (including instrumental versions) or 20 minutes of brand new music.

Since 2017 things have been relatively stable in the Cross Vein camp. There haven’t been any notable changes in personnel since “Gate Of Fantasia” other than bass guitarist Ookatsu Shōyō being replaced by Zary. The once so volatile line-up has solidified and (besides Julia eventually embarking on a solo career) it’s unlikely that there will be any more Cross Vein splinter projects. 2013-2014 rhythm section Nakano Yosuke (bass guitar) and Kouichi Shimizu (drums) branched off with frontwoman Miki (実稀) to form Octaviagrace in 2015. Even though Ibuki (息吹) left in 2009 (and later fronted Art of Gradation and Disqualia, both tragically shortlived constellations with plenty of initial promise) her solo debut didn’t materialize until 2018. “True Castle” is a twofold release that not only premieries two new songs, but offers the same two songs in instrumental form as a bonus, or padding, whichever you prefer. It follows the same template as the “The Revival” single from 2017 and as always the artwork is pretty amazing. Like “The Revival” before it “True Castle” indulges the central duo's aggressive inclinations after the more measured direction that "Gate Of Fantasia" took last year.

These two new songs ‘True Castle’ and ‘Existence’ offer the best of what the two principal songwriters typically specialize in. ‘True Castle’ is a high-speed power metal rager that very much sounds like something from “Royal Eternity” and “Birth Of Romance” and is likely a Yoshinari Kashiwagi composition. Well, maybe “rager” is a bit of a stretch for what is by all accounts a triumphant, uptempo cut with an arrangement and orchestral – and choral accoutrements that oozes classic Rhapsody (Of Fire) vibes. As a bonus there’s a guitar – and keyboard solo trade-off that could’ve come from a pre-2003 Children Of Bodom album (or back when they still worth taking seriously.) In comparison ‘Existence’ is more measured sounding and probably from the hand of Masumi Takayama. While there always has been a sense of technical flair and something of an progressive undercurrent to Cross Vein’s music it has never been so pronounced as it is here. It’s difficult, if not to say impossible, to estimate whether that is indicative of the band’s future material or not, but it’s an interesting development for a unit that has largely set its formula in stone over the last couple of years.

While Ibuki (息吹) was the early voice of Cross Vein Julia Nishimura certainly has become their most identifiable and iconic frontwoman since debuting in 2010. Shrill would be one way of describing Julia’s vocals, glass-shattering another. Over nine years and three albums Nishimura’s golden pipes are one of Cross Vein’s greatest assets. On “True Castle” Julia is her kawaii self and, thankfully, she continues to sing in her native Japanese (despite both tracks being Englisht titled). There are no instances of forced heavily accented English, something which prevented Lovebites highly-publicized Nuclear Blast Records debut “Clockwork Immortality” from unlocking its full potential. Not encumbered by having to appeal to the international market Cross Vein is content to remain a titan force domestically. Due to the sheer intensity of their attack, the relentless optimism, and triumphant technicality Cross Vein is best enjoyed in limited dosages. Offering 2 new tracks, and a total of 20 minutes of music, “True Castle” has the ideal duration while offering a glimpse of where Cross Vein is headed in the future.

“True Castle” doesn’t so much chart new waters as it offers a slight refining of the direction Cross Vein has been specializing in since “Royal Eternity”. Just like on the earlier “The Revival” single Julia doesn’t feature on the cover (even though she did on the earlier “Profusion” and “Maid Of Lorraine” singles) and “True Castle”, at least visually, seems to be a callback to the “Moon Addict” days with artwork that very much looks like a stylistic continuation of “The Revival”. Those pining to see Julia and her dresses again will in all likelihood have to wait for the fourth Cross Vein album. There’s a point to be made that Cross Vein might just be a tad much for the average power metal fan, but bands like Twilight Force, Frozen Crown, Elvenstorm, and Dragonforce are drawing massive crowds despite, or maybe in spite of, their inevitably tacky conceptual nature. The closest thing you could call Cross Vein is fairytale metal, or Tim Burton metal. Whichever description you prefer, “True Castle” very much manifests that the Yoshinari Kashiwagi-Masumi Takayama songwriting partnership continues to pay dividends. As sugary and shiny as Cross Vein tends to be they are emblemic of Japanese power metal in the sense that they do it better than the European masters. That fourth album cannot come soon enough. Let’s hope Julia’s on the cover again.

Plot: kickboxer is coerced into partaking in clandestine tournament

It's entirely within the realm of possibly that in 1995 Albert Pyun was spreading himself a bit thin, creatively. Not only did he direct the first Nemesis (1992) sequel Nemesis 2: Nebula, around the same time he shot three films on location in the Philippines. In a bout of creative economics he lensed the Bond imitation Spitfire, the pseudo-realistic thriller Hong Kong ’97 (1994) and the the Christopher Borkgren written cyberpunk martial arts romp Heatseeker. Despite a mildly promising premise, a relative nobody in the starring role, and a swath of Pyun regulars in tow Heatseeker looks exactly as lethargic and turgid as it sounds. It certainly won’t bother explaining why it is called Heatseeker. If the wretched Bloodmatch (1991) had anything going for it, it was Andy Sidaris babe Hope Marie Carlton. Heatseeker has to content itself with sometime Pyun muse Tina Cote.

In the far-flung future present of 2019 Sianon Corporation marketing executive Tsiu Tung (Norbert Weisser), who isn’t Asian despite his name, has devised the ultimate scheme for dominating the fledging international cybernetics market. In a clandestine, globally broadcast, mixed martial arts tournament rival corporations will be able to present their sponsored fighters, and the eventual winner, and its parent company, will monopolize the cybernetics market. In an unexpected turn of events Chance O’Brien (Keith Cooke), the last fully human competitor and one who is vocal in his condemnation of cybernetics, defeats Sianon grand champion Xao (Gary Daniels) in the ring. To ensure victory for the hosting house Sianon decks out their prize fighter with in-house enhancements in a sequence looking like a skid row re-enactment of the assembly scenes in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991).

At the post-match press conference O’Brien and his fiancée/manager Jo (Tina Cote, as Tina Coté) announce their engagement, and they are soon beset by Tung with his price fighter in attendance. Refusing to bend knee to the interests of corporate overlords O’Brien and Jo head off to Paris, France for a short romantic getaway. Jo is abducted by Tung’s goons and implanted with a mind control chip, the workings of which will, of course, never be explained. Under aegis of Tung she is forced to train Sianon prize fighter Xao under the threat of bodily harm. To make matters worse, Jo is forced upon Xao because Tang apparently mistakes physical affection for love, neither of which Jo is prepared or willing to give. Xao himself doesn’t seem comfortable with the arrangement, and will often look dismayed – or that may just be Daniels’ complete inability to emote combined with the cold looking azure contacts he is forced to wear. To get O’Brien to do his bidding Tung threatens to kill Jo if he doesn’t follow his plan. How killing Jo is supposed to be beneficial to Xao’s training regiment is, of course, conveniently glossed over. Neither does Tung seem to have a contingency plan in place in case O’Brien doesn’t want to partake in the clandestine tournament, and is prepared to sacrifice Jo to facilitate his escape.

In tradition of Bloodsport (1988) and Kickboxer (1989) – wherein Jean-Claude van Damme is as oiled up and flexible as Cooke is here - the only way to avenge the killing/taking of one’s sibling or paramour is by partaking in an underground martial arts tournament, or a full-contact kumite. Checking in at his hotel in New Manila a helpful receptionist (Hazel Huelves) points him to the right direction to enroll in the tournament. The tournament is, to avoid all possible confusion, simply called The Tournament. Supposedly because The Arena, Kubate, or Mortal Kombat were already taken. As genre convention dictates upon arriving in the Filipino capital of New Manila, O’Brien has barely left the plane or he is accosted by street thugs, and robbed of both his clothing and whatever possessions he brought along - an old Filipino action movie convention that also could be found in the Cirio H. Santiago topless kung fu classics TNT Jackson (1974), Naked Fist (1981) and Angelfist (1993). It is here at O’Brien runs into Bradford (Thom Mathews), a corporate executive acting as his own sponsor and quite literally defending his firm in the ring. Bradford is supposed to act has a buddy to O’Brien, but nothing substantial is made of it. A subplot wherein Tung coerces Bradford to sell O’Brien down the river is brought up, but has no visible effect on the main plot.

As Chance works his way through the early part of The Tournament he attracts the attention of the Zanac Corporation, who decide to sponsor him. Corporate assistant Liu (Yau Chau-Yuet or Selena Mangharan, as Selena Mangh), who everybody refers to as “Lou”, makes sure O’Brien remains properly motivated. Eventually Chance faces reigning champion Xao, who multiple characters lovingly call “a tin man”, an obvious reference the Wonderful Wizard of Oz novel, who despite being almost completely rebuilt from cybernetic components still doesn’t reach his full potential as a fighter. Xao, like LL Cool J before him, needs love to unlock his true power as a cybernetic combatant. When O’Brien defeats Xao in the ring a second time, supposedly due to the fact that O’Brien is empowered by love, the latter sacrifices himself by taking a bullet meant for Jo. O’Brien, dimwitted as always, walks away from the situation oblivious to Xao’s rather blatant and obvious heroic self-sacrifice.

Unlike the vastly superior Mortal Kombat (1995) or the Jean-Claude van Damme box office bomb Street Fighter (1994), Heatseeker hardly, if ever, manages to deliver on its promise. The mildly interesting premise, the stylized look, and even the fights come across as overly stilted and daft. The cybernetic implants and upgrades are heavily emphasized in the mess of a screenplay but it’s impossible to tell which combatants are enhanced and which are not. Neither do said implants seem to give any of the more enhanced combatants any strategic upperhand or special skills. One of the bigger, and more important, problems for Heatseeker is the unequivocally flat and unenergetic action choreography. The fights universally and uniformly are clunky, slow, and lack in athleticism, rhythm, and grace.

If this had been a Hong Kong production at least the fights would have been good. Not so here. Further complicating matters is that there's a complete absence of interesting camera angles, every scene is shot in soft focus, and the fights are easily the most boring aspect of the production. A great deal is made of Heatseeker being about a full-contact kumite yet it's practically bloodless and the injuries of the cybernetic combatants are shown with small, budget-efficient exposing of wiring and circuitry embedded in human flesh. Each cybernetic combatant hits the canvas with the expected eruption of sparks, vapors of smoke, and light electronic buzzing. It’s a sad day for a budget-deficient martial arts movie when the referee (Mary Courtney) becomes the only aspect of a fight worth paying attention to.

Somewhere in Heatseeker there’s a worthwhile little martial arts movie, or a passable character study of cybernetic enhanced martial artists in search and contemplation of the nature of humanity, and their loss thereof - or a protest against the corporization and mass commercialization of popular sports entertainment. All of which director Albert Pyun, or most likely screenwriter Christopher Borkgren, has no interest in exploring to any degree. It’s interesting that two of Pyun’s more worthy offerings were far more grounded in reality than his usual dystopian cyberpunk vehicles. Hong Kong ’97 benefitted from having two lead stars (Robert Patrick and Ming-Na Wen) that could actually act, and Spitfire was a popcorn spy/adventure flick in the truest sense of the word. That Heatseeker, much more in Pyun’s comfort zone than anything else that year, is so immensely, unforgivingly stale that it might as well signal that Pyun was spreading himself a tad too thin creatively that year. Heatseeker makes one long for the glorious incompetence of Mortal Kombat: Annihilation.