Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Essay: 'Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky'



By Craig D. Lindsey

As always, it starts with a story. A personal story.

I was driving one Saturday night in Houston, my former place of residence, to interview a budding rapper or musician or producer or whatever at the recording studio he uses. I don’t remember anything about this guy’s music. I don’t remember if I wrote an article on him. Hell, I don’t even remember his name — both stage and government. But, I do remember one thing quite clearly: he had a box full of VHS tapes next to the couch where he was sitting. And The Story of Ricky was sitting right on top of them.

I asked him if I could borrow the film. “That’s cool, man,” he said — I think.

Later that night, as I popped the tape into my VCR, I didn’t so much as watch it as I skimmed through it. I was well aware of the movie’s extremely violent nature. Its most outrageously graphic scene, a hulky man smashing a guy’s head with his bare hands, was used on “The Daily Show” as the title sequence for then-host Craig Kilborn’s “5 Questions” segment. (Incidentally, that came to be because the authors of the book “Baked Potatoes: A Pot Smoker's Guide to Film & Video” appeared as guests on the show and showed that clip, declaring Ricky to be an ideal movie to watch while you’re getting blunted. It’s also great to watch when you’re wasted, too.) And much like when guys used to peruse through porn videos, I fast-forwarded through all the talking to get to the really nasty stuff.

In some ways, I skipped to all the graphic parts so I wouldn’t be caught off-guard when I eventually viewed the film in its entirety. As I learned, the head-smashing scene is not the most insane thing Ricky serves up. Based on the Japanese manga Riki-Oh (which also became a couple of straight-to-video animes), the movie version of Ricky lives up to its comic-book counterpart by presenting violence that’s just as cartoonish, over-the-top and gruesomely absurd as you would see in any R-rated funny pages. (When it was released in 1991, the movie itself earned a Category III rating, the Hong Kong equivalent of an NC-17, making it one of the first non-erotic films to earn such a rating.)

Set in the dark, distant future of 2001 (you can tell it’s the future by the quasi-John Carpenter/Escape From New York music), Ricky virtually trumpets the graphic, brutal unpredictability that will soon come by taking place in a prison. (Any “Oz” fan will tell you the most creative ways to maim or kill a person usually happen in the big house.) As the title implies, it’s the story of a man named Riki-Oh (Terry Fan Siu Wong), who does a ten-year manslaughter stint for literally punching a hole in the head of a drug-dealing gangster who caused his beloved girlfriend to jump off a building and commit suicide. While he’s supposedly a quiet man who just wants to do his time in peace, this dirty, stinking, corrupt jail won’t let him be.

The people who run this place are bigger thugs and criminals than the actual inmates. (I’ve never seen a movie with such a sorry bunch of jailbirds — are they all doing time for jaywalking or something?) The assistant warden is a one-armed, gluttonous sadist who wears a glass eye filled with mints (huh?). The wings of the prison are ran by the “Gang of Four,” a quartet of lethal henchmen who also guard the prison’s illegal opium stock. (It’s worth noting that famed Japanese actress/martial artist Yukari Oshima took a “trouser role” as the gang’s most dangerous — and male — member.) And let’s not forget the actual warden, who shows up halfway through the movie, complete with a mean, tyrannical streak and a portly, spoiled brat for a son.

With all these psychopaths around, it’s obvious that Riki-Oh won’t be doing his time peacefully. It’s a good thing he spent his youth getting trained by his cackling uncle, who taught him to control his temperament and work on his strengths by having him smash tombstones his unc threw at him in cemeteries. Eventually, Riki-Oh becomes a reluctant hero to the inmates, as he stands up to these mercilessly evil superiors and fights his way toward freedom. So, it’s basically like “Cool Hand Luke” — if Paul Newman knew how to hit people so hard, their eyes would pop out of their sockets.

Ricky is a movie that certainly takes advantage of the whole superhuman-strength concept. Hey, if you have the strength of a hundred men, which our main protagonist inexplicably has, wouldn’t you put it to good use and really destroy some bad guys? Riki-Oh has enough power in his fists to obliterate men’s midsections, knock the top of a guy’s head off and uppercut a dude’s jaw out of his mouth. Director Ngai Kai Lam takes almost nutty glee filming close-ups where Riki-Oh’s fists of steel destroy the fake, stage blood-filled heads and torsos and limbs that come one after the other. Ricky is a movie that practically never lets up on its extreme nature. Just when you think it’s ran out of body parts to decimate, it finds yet more ingenious ways to awesomely make your stomach turn.

Ricky introduced me to a form of Hong Kong cinema I was not yet familiar with. It’s not like the acrobatic popcorn flicks of Jackie Chan, the slo-mo, crime-noir shoot-em-ups of John Woo or even the stylish, beautiful, art-house films of Wong Kar-Wai — Hong Kong movie auteurs I already knew and admired. No, this is Hong Kong exploitation at its most low-low-lowdown. The kind of movie Quentin Tarantino saluted in the first Kill Bill volume. The kind of movie where the blood gushes like water fountains, a man’s intestines can serve as his secret weapon during a fight and even dogs can get the stuffing kicked out of them.

These days, I have seen enough Hong Kong action flicks to be mostly desensitized by whatever viscera-hurling action comes my way. (Although, once in a while, a movie does come along and surprises me, like the recently-released Tokyo Gore Police — Jesus, that was a messed-up movie!) I even find the violence in “Ricky” quite meh these days. If anything, with its gory ludicrousness and high levels of camp, watching it now reminds me just how laughable and redonkulous this movie truly is. Even if it didn’t have the bad English dubbing — the movie’s most hilarious asset — the lazy performances and tacky special effects would guarantee that this is still one cheesy movie. One bloody, shocking, bugnuts crazy, cheesy movie.

However, The Story of Ricky will always be the first to show me how outrageous — and even fearless — Hong Kong cinema can get. I always knew Asian cinema had us beat in several areas. But, they can even make better exploitation flicks than us.

I feel sorry for all you poor bastards who will be watching this for the first time this evening. You have no idea what you are in for. (I’m sure people who’ve seen it will have the extra kick of watching who stays and who flees the auditorium in horror.) As for me, I’ll probably be at the house, watching it once again, on the VHS tape I never gave back to that rapper/producer/musician/whatever dude.

Craig D. Lindsey is the film critic and reporter for the News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina. You can read his reviews here and his not so recently updated blog here.


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