Bruce Lee's Enter the Dragon is the one I will always remember as my first glimpse into the realm of martial arts movies. Since then, we've seen many others take the formula and attempt to change it to make it seem fresh and new. Most American attempts to do so have failed miserably over the last 35 years for me (except for maybe Bloodsport with Jean-Claude Van Damme, which is a guilty pleasure) .
Back in 1997, Todd McFarlane's anti-hero Spawn came to the big screen. Though Spawn was not a great film, for me it always stood out as having some great things about it. John Leguizamo played the demented clown with some great one-liners, and relative unknown Michael Jai White starred as Al Simmons, the soldier who becomes Spawn. I always thought White did a great job with the role (as did Leguizamo), but I can't say I remember him in anything since then.
Blood and Bone takes care of that situation nicely, and I hope signals the beginning of a resurgence in martial arts movies about more than wire work and fight choreography. White plays a character simply known as "Bone," who has recently been released from prison and finds himself quickly drawn into the underground world of street fighting in Los Angeles. These street fights are not boxing matches – this is mixed martial arts at its most raw. Bone must fight to survive and work his way up the ladder to the top.
The biggest thing that impressed me about this direct-to-DVD offering from Sony Pictures was the slow reveal of the story. Yes, there are plenty of short, violent fights to tide over most fans of martial arts films. But as you learn more about Bone and why he's doing what he's doing, it made me think back to the era of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. Lone heroes coming out of nowhere, wading into a fight simply because it would be wrong to do otherwise.
Bone is a mystery. At the beginning of the film, you don't know what to think of him more than "dang, that guy can fight!" But by the end, you have a better appreciation of what he's had planned all along. White portrayed the solid, yet mysterious Bone extremely well. He was amazing in the fight sequences, but also has some nice emotional moments and even a couple of funny ones.
Starring alongside White are Julian Sands as underworld arms merchant and fight promoter Franklin McVeigh, and Eamonn Walker as James, a mob boss with higher career goals. Sands has made a career out of playing great bad guys throughout the years and Walker has played great roles in films such as Cadillac Records and the TV-series Oz. Sands may have been a bit of overkill for his part, but I thought Walker did a great job in his role. James is a bad man who believes he in what he is doing and what needs to be done, and that make him much more believable.
Blood and Bone isn't anything like the martial arts films of Jackie Chan or Chow Yun Fat, which tend to focus more on humor or the grace and magic of the ancient Chinese world. White shows a Hollywood approximation of street fighting. And with the popularity of mixed martial arts on the rise, his movie seems well-timed to ride that swell of interest.
White has been around martial arts for most of his life and holds multiple black belts in Shotokan, Tae Kwon Do, Kobudo, and other styles. His overall style merges qualities of his combined experience, making him a very dangerous opponent. But it's his appreciation for martial arts and how they're portrayed in mass media that really sets him apart. He didn't just want to make a martial arts movie. He wanted to make a good movie that just also happened to have martial arts in it.
But White isn't the only skilled martial artist in the cast. Kevin "Kimbo Slice" Ferguson, Bob "The Beast" Sapp, Tanoai Reed, Gina Carano, and Ernest "The Cat" Miller are among the fiercest fighters in MMA today. Seeing these folks fight during the film is like watching a "who's who" of the sport. Gina Carano is a serious contender in the women's mixed martial arts fighting circuit and was the Gladiator "Crush" in the most recent incarnation of American Gladiators. And she's attracted the attention of Steven Soderbergh in the lead role of his upcoming film Knockout.
You could tell even the crew was behind this film 100 percent when you watch the featurette "Breaking the Mold: Behind the Scenes of Blood and Bone." This film was a labor of love for everyone: from the actors to the screenwriter and even the cameramen. Everyone involved wanted this movie done right.
Other featurettes include a sneak peek at Black Dynamite, an upcoming comedy starring White, and commentary from director Ben Ramsey, White, Dante Basco (played "Pinball" in the film, a loud-mouthed sarcastic fight promoter), Michelle Belegrin (the troubled girl Angela), and cinematographer Roy Wagner.
Blood and Bone most likely won't win many awards, but it's a solid movie, provideing some great fight choreography and a backstory that gives the violence a reason. Definitely not for the kids due to the violence and language, but worth seeing in my book. If you like MMA or martial arts movies, be sure to check it out at your favorite online or brick-and-mortar retailer when it's released September 15, 2009.