Starring: Michael Jai White, Eamon Walker, Dante Basco, Julian Sands, Matt Mullins
After being released from prison, a man known only as “Bone”(White) hooks up with a lowly fight promoter called Pinball (Basco) and starts climbing the ranks of the local underground fightclub circuits. He has his sights set on a James, a local heavy-made-good, and his undefeated fighter Hammer Man (Bob Sapp). Meanwhile James is looking for a way to make it into an elite syndicate, via his contact, arms dealer Franklyn McVeigh.
Bar one element, there is absolutely nothing new here, nothing we haven’t seen before. Underground fighting, ambitious gangsters, a man-with-no-name out for some form of revenge. On the face of it, Blood and Bone is a throwback to the sort of films Billy Blanks and Jeff Speakman were making over a decade ago.
So why do I like it so damn much, and why should you be checking it out as soon as you stop reading this? Simple: Michael Jai White proves here that he’s one of the best screen fighters working in the USA today.
We first meet Bone in prison, where a bunch of rapists confront him in a toilet. He gives them to the count of five to leave, but of course they ignore that. They should have listened to him.
Then suddenly, Bone is back out in the world (with a split-second signature shot of him walking alongside the highway, like Bill Bixby used to at the end of each episode of The Hulk), and moves into a boarding house run by a widow called Tamara. The film doesn’t dwell on it but there are photos of a policeman in her front room. Also living in the house is a young boy whom she’s looking after and an elderly man who likes to play chess and chase off the local teen drug dealers.
Bone turns up to a local underground fight night. This scene reminded me a lot of the race meets in the Fast and Furious movies – loud hip hop, hot girls and cars etc. Eventually James arrives with his best fighter, The Hammer Man, who’s here to fight a guy called Cowboy (stuntman Stuart F Wilson). All the while, Bone is in the background, checking things out.
Bone tries to get Pinball – Cowboy’s promoter – to get a fight with The Hammer Man, but first he has to make a name for himself. So begins the mid-section of the film as Bone wins fight after fight.
There’s a lot of detail in this section. Bone has an almost-comic-book ability to spot weaknesses in his opponents. This is shown with a “special stare” he gives his opponents as he watches them limber up or try to show off with a flurry of shadow punches. MJW shows off some seriously cool moves without any CGI or wire-fu nonsense, and the choreography of the fights has been given considerable thought. For example, as Bone climbs the ranks, his opponents actually get tougher to defeat. You’re never in any doubt that Bone is going to win, but at least he has to work up a sweat. I hate films where the fights are so constantly one-sided you wonder why the bad-guys even showed up. The other interesting detail here is with Pinball. At the start he’s a nervous nobody, way out of his league with the likes of James. His car has shiny rims but is in desperate need of a paint job. As Bone wins them money from the fights, his car and his clothes get flashier and his self-confidence verges on overly cocky.
Although Bone is a man of few words, he is very cunning and articulate. He is working his own agenda the whole time and eventually the audience cottons on to it. However, the final twist is a master play.
Before you come to that though there is one of the best screen fights to come out of Hollywood. Matt Mullins plays Price, prized fighter of a secret syndicate of “businessmen”. We learn that he’s killed about 7 men in the ring and has never been defeated. When we meet him in the flesh, he’s wearing an expensive looking suit and tie. As he sizes up Bone, he’s asked if he wants to change first. “What for?” he snorts.
It’s not the all-out, flashy, end-of-the-movie fight that you’d expect for this type of film. For a start, there’s hardly any audience – just Julian Sand’s and his associates, and James, and no one’s cheering/rooting for either fighter. There’s none of the usual “to and fro” – where the bad guy seems to be winning until the hero gets it together and finally kicks his ass. These guys are seen to be almost equals from the start, each throwing a move – a high kick, a strike – to see how the other moves and reacts. The fight takes place in an open courtyard, allowing both fighters to really open up with flashy kicks and strikes. The action is fast, brutal and wholly believable.
Blood and Bone has two cool bad-guys. Eamon Walker plays James, an ambitious gangster who’s envious of the power wielded by the Syndicate. However it’s quite clear that for all his pretentions (he doesn’t swear, dotes on his pitbulls), he doesn’t have the finesse needed to live in Franklyn’s world. Early on, Franklyn tells James to “pay a visit” to a business associate of his. In a well shot and written scene, which starts off as a jovial dinner party, James eventually murders his associate with a sword cane. When James tells Franklyn later that he’d killed him, Franklyn’s attitude suggests that he didn’t necessarily need him to be killed, just coerced. “You need to be more subtle, my friend”, he tells him.
Julian Sands plays it cool all the way through, a schemer who always knows which side to back. He doesn’t have to do a lot, but he does get a well-written but rather racist speech to make to James (who is witty enough to make his own riposte).
A step above the usual Fight Movie fare,
Blood and Bone
embraces the usual clichés but manages to deliver something unique at the same time. The fights are all entertaining but the final confrontation between Michael Jai White and Matt Mullins ranks as one of the best in a US movie.
8 out of 10 (MikeOutWest)
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