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Plot: martial artists from all over the world compete in tournament on remote island

There are two kinds of American martial arts movies. Those that came before The Matrix (1999) and those that came after. The former are brutish slogs where the fights more resemble brawls with sluggish choreography and no sense of rhythm and pacing. Often times the fights in these movies tend to be heavily cut and edited because the actors in question have no formal background in martial arts. Even when the performers had a background in the arts (such as Jean-Claude Van Damme, Steven Seagal, or Olivier Gruner) western martial arts movies tend to be rather slow relying far more on blunt power than on technical expertise. The latter more Asian inclined variants are far more elegant, acrobatic, and fast-moving with professional combatants engaging in elaborate hand-to-hand and weapon-based action routines. DOA: Dead Or Alive thankfully leans more towards the Asian variant and is about as ridiculous as it is entertaining.

DOA: Dead Or Alive (hereafter DOA) has something of a bad rep. Undeservedly as far as we’re concerned. As a western, English-language martial arts movie there are far worse offenders. DOA takes the Mortal Kombat (1995) template and adds a healthy dose of Hong Kong action choreography and wire-fu to spice things up. DOA is what Street Fighter (1994) should have been. DOA was produced by Paul W.S. Anderson on an estimated budget of $21 million with Corey Yuen directing and Devon Aoki, Jaime Pressly, Holly Valance, Natassia Malthe, and Sarah Carter starring. Perhaps Anderson was hoping to capture lightning a second time the way he did with his Mortal Kombat (1995) some eleven years earlier. Unfortunately DOA made only around $7.5 million - just over a third of its budget - at the box office; and all intended sequels in the new franchise were summarily scrapped. It wouldn’t be until Tekken (2010) before another fighting game came to the big screen. Alas, Rare/Midway’s cartoonishly over-the-top Killer Instinct from 1994 remains without a much-overdue Hollywood treatment for reasons unknown.

Based on the Japanese video game series created by Tomonobu Itagaki for Tecmo DOA is a more or less faithful recreation of the plot from 1999’s Dead Or Alive 2. It features all the beloved characters in their signature costumes and as a bonus of sorts there’s an extended segment dedicated to its legendary 2003 spinoff Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball for good measure. There couldn’t be anything more typically Japanese than Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball where the player plays and interacts with giggling babes with oversized oppai in miniscule candy-colored bikinis. It’s fanservice taken to the ultimate extreme. It’s a thing that could only come from Japan where the near-transactional adoration and adulation of prepubescent - and adolescent girls as Idols (gravure and otherwise) has spawned a booming and very lucrative (multi-billion yen annually) otaku industry. DOA has the babes, the pastel-colored bikinis, and the volleyball. The oppai on the other hand are rather modest. In fact DOA barely scratches the surface on that end. Otherwise it is a fun martial arts romp with some lovably zany production design.

Four martial artists from different walks of life are invited to partake in a clandestine 4-day tournament somewhere in Asia. Princess Kasumi (Devon Aoki) is a kunoichi that leaves her colony to look for her brother Hayate (Collin Chou Siu-Lung). Following her are Ryu Hayabusa (Kane Kosugi) and her half-sister Ayane (Natassia Malthe), the former as her security detail and the latter on a mission to kill the Princess for disgracing her clan. Tina Armstrong (Jaime Pressly) - whose wardrobe seems to exclusively consist of a Union Jack bikini and a very short pair of blue jeans – sees it as a springboard to prove her legitimacy as a fighter and that she’s not the phony she’s often accused of being. Tagging along is her father Bass Armstrong (Kevin Nash). Christie Allen (Holly Valance) is a British master thief and assassin who not only has her eye on the $10 million price money but also on an alleged treasure hidden somewhere on the island. Along with her partner Maximillian Marsh (Matthew Marsden) the two accept the invitation. Lastly, Helena Douglas (Sarah Carter) is the daughter of the original DOA tournament organiser and the object of affection of DOA tech head Weatherby (Steve Howey). Douglas is distrustful of Dr. Victor Donovan (Eric Roberts) who now runs DOA.

The two American name-stars of DOA are Devon Aoki and Jaime Pressly. Aoki started as a model in music videos from Duran Duran, Primal Scream, Ludacris and Genuwine. Naturally that led Devon to an acting career with semi-memorable turns in 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003), D.E.B.S. (2004) and Sin City (2005). Jaime Pressly also started as a model but soon carved out a career in low-brow comedies, thrillers, and the occassional horror with Poison Ivy: The New Seduction (1997), Can't Hardly Wait (1998), Not Another Teen Movie (2001), and Demon Island (2002). Less known but not any less popular was Australian actress Holly Valance who began her career in the soap opera Neighbours (from whence Kylie Minogue, Jason Donovan, and Natalie Imbruglia came) but didn’t flirt with the mainstream until the new millennium. In 2002 she released the hit single ‘Kiss Kiss’, an English reworking of the 1997 original Tarkan hit single ‘Şımarık’, from her debut album “Footprints”. As far as millennial dance-pop went Valance was a rival for the likes of Rachel Stevens and Gabriella Cilmi.

Compared to her peers Canadian television actress Sarah Carter was a relative nobody with only a supporting part in Final Destination 2 (2003) to her name. Natassia Malthe (one of the many victims of predatory producer Harvey Weinstein) was in Disturbing Behavior (1998), Halloween: Resurrection (2002), Elektra (2005) and via BloodRayne II: Deliverance (2007), Alone in the Dark II (2008) and BloodRayne: The Third Reich (2011) now seems to dwell permanently in direct-to-video, low budget hell. Collin Chou Siu-Lung is primarily known in the Western hemisphere for his roles as Seraph in The Matrix Reloaded (2003) and The Matrix Revolutions (2003) as well as the Jade Warlord in The Forbidden Kingdom (2008). Around these parts he's remembered for the Mainland China action romps Angel Warriors (2013) and Ameera (2014) from the Film Bureau. Eric Roberts, of course, is the old school professional who has been acting since 1964. DOA was shortly before his career revival with Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008) and Sylvester Stallone’s all-star 80s action throwback The Expendables (2010).

There was more than enough fanservice in terms of costumes in the Dead Or Alive series and even moreso in its Xtreme Beach Volleyball parallel franchise. DOA takes its sweet time relishing in all the beautiful women that frequently populate the screen. It’s the kind of fanservice that's never exploitative. The two most obvious instances are the introduction of the four leads and the friendly volleyball match in the second act. Where else are you going to see Holly Valance in nothing but a towel laying waste to some faceless goons before putting her lingerie back on? The original scene had Valance topless when she came out of the shower and fully nude during the actual fight. To secure a PG-13 rating the scene was censored in post-production. Then there’s Jaime Pressly in a tiny bikini meting out punishment to a group of pirates while adrift at sea, the pirate leader who is none other than Robin Shou from Mortal Kombat (1995). The beach volleyball segment contains enough ass – and chest shots to satiate anybody’s cravings while the actual bouncing is fairly minimal. As much as Xtreme Beach Volleyball revolutionized jiggle physics those hoping to see Chinese belles as Zhu Ke Er, Yang Ke, Mavis Pan Shuang-Shuang, Liu Zhimin, Daniella Wang Li Danni, Miki Zhang Yi-Gui, and Pan Chun Chun, or one of their 2006 equivalents, among the volleyball playing extras will be sorely disappointed. None such thing will be forthcoming.

The action direction and choreography from Guo Jian-Yong puts DOA leagues above Street Fighter (1994) and Mortal Kombat (1995). The various duels are hard-hitting, energetic and fast-paced with shorter or longer routines and wire-fu that capitalize maximally on the girls’ elegance and athleticism. Of course it would be folly to expect from Aoki, Pressly, Valance and Carter to match themselves with Angela Mao, Michelle Yeoh, Moon Lee, or Cynthia Khan. Director Corey Yuen was a veteran from the Peking Opera School and one of the members of The Seven Little Fortunes that also included Sammo Hung Kam-Bo, Jackie Chan, and Yuen Biao. Yuen was in the Tsui Hark fantasy wuxia Zu: The Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983) and made a name for himself in North America through his films with Jet Li. He might not be as well-known in the western hemisphere as Yuen Woo-ping and Ching Siu-tung. Yuen Woo-ping will forever be associated with the Wachowski’s cyberpunk action classic The Matrix (1999) and Ching Siu-tung for his work on A Chinese Ghost Story (1987), Hero (2002), House of Flying Daggers (2004), as well as the Hindi superhero masalas Krrish (2006), and Krrish 3 (2013).

DOA is a guilty pleasure of the purest sort. It’s not the kind of movie you watch for the story in the first place. Holly Valance looks great in lingerie and in a bikini. Devon Aoaki can’t really act and Jaime Pressly is about the worst American stereotype imagineable. Sarah Carter looks really adorable and Eric Roberts visibly enjoys himself chewing scenery while surrounded by beautiful women. The orange-pink-purple production design is a feast to behold and that DOA occassionally mimics its videogame counterpart makes it all the more fun. That’s perhaps DOA’s greatest forté, it never takes itself too seriously. DOA knows that it’s rank pulp and what little plot there was is mere pretext to showcase the four leads in their signature costumes. As far as we’re concerned DOA is the StarCrash (1978) of Hollywood martial arts movies. DOA is all about fun and as a martial arts exercise it’s better than it has any reason to be. DOA’s bad rep is not unfounded but that doesn’t make it any less of an entertaining action romp for a lazy afternoon.

Plot: reclusive gambler is forced out of retirement when a rival kills his wife

When Jing Wong puts his mind to things and gets it right, he does so with flying colors. In the half decade between God Of Gambers (1989) and this sequel a number of spin-offs and sub-franchises kept the burgeoning gambling genre alive. Chow Yun-Fat, now a veritable HK action star thanks to his work with John Woo, returned to his iconic role as Ko Chun. God Of Gamblers Return is everything that the first movie was but bigger in every sense of the word. Tightly directed, beautifully photographed and with a cast including, among others, Tony Leung, Chingmy Yau, Elvis Tsui and Ng Sin-Lin God Of Gamblers Return is one of those rare sequels that is actually better than the original film. The action is hard-hitting, the jokes work, and the women are uniformly beautiful. In God Of Gamblers Return everthing works and it’s free of Wong’s more annoying tendencies. No wonder it passed the HK$ 50 million (HK52,541,028) mark at the HK box office.

God Of Gamblers (1989) established gambling as a genre of its own. An official sequel not immediately forthcoming Jing Wong (and others) capitalized on the movie’s box office success with All For the Winner (1990) and Casino Tycoon (1992). All For the Winner spoofed God Of Gambers but was succesfull enough to become its own franchise. God Of Gamblers II (1990) acted both a sequel to the Chow Yun-Fat original and as a pseudo-sequel to the earlier All For the Winner (1990). All For the Winner (1990) was headlined by rising star Stephen Chow and The Top Bet (1991) installed Carol Cheng Yu-Ling and Anita Mui as the star gamblers. For maximum possible confusion Cheng Yu-Ling starred in The Queen of Gamble (1991). God of Gamblers III: Back to Shanghai (1991) took an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach and is probably the craziest of the Stephen Chow sub-franchise. It wasn’t until 1994 that Wong produced an official sequel to his earlier smash hit. Evidently God Of Gamblers Return was worth the wait.

It has been 5 long years since Ko Chun, the God Of Gambers (Chow Yun-Fat) has made any public appearances. In his absence his apprentice Little Knife has since become a reputable gambler of great renown. For four years Chun has lived in great anonimity in France where he picked up painting. Since a year he’s back at home and living a quiet life on his opulent estate with his pregnant second wife Wan Yau (Sharla Cheung, as Man Cheung), a spitting image of his first spouse. His friend Lung Ng (Charles Heung Wah-Keung) comes over for a visit and the two engage in a friendly shooting match in the gardens of the estate. Suddenly a convoy of black limos arrive at the estate disgorging the number one contender to Ko Chun’s title, Chau Siu Chue (Wu Hsing-Guo). Ko Chun’s wife Wan Yau is brutally shot, gutted and his unborn son is torn from the womb and kept in a jar. All mere preamble to coerce Ko Chun into a gambling duel in Taiwan. Yau forbids Chun to gamble and reveal his identity for a year as to not plunge him into an impulsive act of retribution. As Yau passes away in his arms Ko Chun promises to honor her dying wish. For the next 11 months Chun travels the world as a shadow, avoiding most human contact and never having his picture taken.

He arrives in Mainland China where dazzling beautiful young girl Hoi Tong (Chingmy Yau Suk-Ching) catches his eye when taking a picture. Before long he’s making his acquaintance with her precocious little brother Hoi Yuen (Xie Miao) and their gangster father Hoi On (Blacky Ko Sau-Leung, as Blackie Ko). A power struggle within the criminal organisation that Hoi On works for has ambitious underling Tao Kwun (Ken Lo Wai-Kwong) violently attacking the boat on Qingdao lake that Ko Chun and his new friends are on. In his dying breath Hoi On entrusts Ko Chun with the care of his children. As they wash ashore in Mainland China they are immediately arrested and detained by the communist People's Armed Police under command of Capt. Kok Ching Chung (Elvis Tsui Kam-Kong) and his high-maintenance wife (Bonnie Fu Yuk-Jing). Thanks to some quick thinking Ko Chun and Hoi Yuen escape imprisonment, but their daring escape leads to a massive hard-target manhunt of the two fugitive felons. The duo seek shelter in a nearby low-rent motel where they meet grifter sibling duo Siu Fong-Fong or Little Trumpet (Tony Leung Ka-Fai) and his younger sister Siu Yiu-Yiu, or Little Guitar (Ng Sin-Lin, as Chien-Lien Wu) who is terrible as a hostess and even worse as a waitress but harbors a crush on the God Of Gamblers, of whom she possesses a picture.

The People's Armed Police eventually surround the motel where Hoi Yuen has defeated the grifters at Black Jack. The police assault to building razing it to the ground in the process and the gang gets away by pretending to be police officers and taking commander Bo hostage. The four charter a boat to Tainam, Taiwan as command of the police forces is taken over by Cheung Po Sing (Wong Kam-Kong), a mentalist who refers to himself as the Treasure of Mainland. The gang arrive in Taiwan with only three days to spare. En route to the Taiwanese casino Ko Chun and the gang reconnect with Hoi Tong, who makes a spectacular entrance in the establishment. Bound to keep his identity secret Ko Chun pretends to be Little Knife, the apprentice of the God Of Gamblers with Little Trumpet taking on Ko Chun’s identity. Chan Gam Sing (Bau Hon-Lam), Cho’s opponent from the first film, warns the God Of Gamblers that Chau Siu Chue will stop at nothing to defeat him. Chau Siu Chue’s forces storm the casino and in the ensuing fracas Little Guitar takes a bullet but not before realizing that she spent her dying moments (and the days before) in company of her biggest idol. Sworn to avenge the slayings of Little Guitar and his wife Wan Yau, Ko Chun faces off against Chau Siu Chue, the self-proclaimed Devil Of Gamblers, in a match of Chinese poker.

There couldn’t be a bigger difference between this movie and the first. God Of Gamblers for the most part was a situational – and slapstick comedy bookended by high-stake gambling segments from whence it derived its name. God Of Gamblers Return on the other hand makes full use of Yun-Fat’s new status as HK action star. The many bullet ballet action scenes are redolent of John Woo, be it that they only miss the characteristic long trenchcoats and cool sunglasses. The comedy now is merely limited to moments in between dramatic character scenes, violent shoot-outs, and the thing everybody’s here for: the gambling matches. Chow Yun-Fat obviously relished in returning to one of his most famous characters, and whether he’s playing the suave, worldly gambler or the scruffy looking every guy in his civilian identity Yun-Fat shines. Tony Leung’s Little Trumpet is an obvious substitute for Andy Lau’s Little Knife (who starred in his own gambling franchise with All For the Winner) and the chemistry between Yun-Fat, Leung and Ng Sin-Lin is one of the movie’s greatest accomplishments.

Jing Wong never hid his adoration for Chingmy Yau, and who in the right mind could possibly blame him? In 1994 Yau was a HK superstar thanks to her appearances in Naked Killer (1992), Future Cops (1993), the wuxia spoof Legend of the Liquid Sword (1993), the failed franchise launcher Kung Fu Cult Master (1993) with Jet Li and City Hunter (1993) with Jackie Chan and Joey Wong. It’s common knowledge that Wong and Yau had an affair for many years prior to Chingmy’s marriage in 1999. No other woman in the cast, not even the considerably higher profile Sharla Cheung, gets as many flattering shots and the most beautiful dresses to wear as Yau gets here. The scene where Hoi Tong makes her entrance in the Taiwan casino and cuts the cards for the goons is legendary for all the right reasons. Yau gets to show some leg and partake in an impressive bout wire-fu stuntwork in a sequence that borrows equally from his earlier Naked Killer (1992) and Future Cops (1993), respectively. No matter what role Wong cast Yau in she always was sure to steam up whatever scenes she was in even if the movie itself was a dud.

God Of Gamblers Return is in all ways superior to the 1989 original. Chow Yun-Fat was a handful of years away from conquering the western world with the period costume wuxia Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). God Of Gamblers Return makes full usage of Yun-Fat’s status as a HK action star and the aspect is played up more than before. Some two decades later Xie Miao would star in Tsui Hark's The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia (2017). Jing Wong’s juvenile humor is kept an absolute minimum. Obviously God Of Gamblers Return was a prestige project for Wong as no expenses were spared making it bigger and better than the original. Wong puts greater emphasis on the characters and the arc that each goes through as the movie progresses. Of course God Of Gamblers Return is a popcorn flick at heart and even though it will occassionally pull some sentimental strings it makes no pretense of being a drama or character study. Jing Wong will never be a Tsui Hark but when a philistine like him gets things right fireworks do tend to follow…