Red Sun Rising

Director: Francis Megahy
Don "The Dragon" Wilson, Mako, Michael Ironside

As you can imagine, having a love for movies results in myself thinking about them a lot. I certainly like to think about movies as a whole, like when I think about a pleasant (or not so pleasant) viewing experience I had with a certain movie. But I don't just think about movies as a whole - I also like to think about individual parts about a movie, parts that may be shared with a whole lot of movies. Sometimes I like to think about the writing of certain movies, from witty dialogue to clever plot twists. Or about the direction of certain movies, ranging from exciting action sequences to nail-biting horror. One individual part of movies that I sometimes like to think about are certain actors who have managed to make enough of a name of themselves that they are recognized by a wide enough audience. Movie stars, to be precise. Recently, when I came across a copy of the movie I am reviewing here - Red Sun Rising - the lead actor in the movie got me thinking about stars such as him. Specifically, it got me to think about one particular question: Just what makes a movie star? After thinking about it for a while, I came up with some possible answers. First, there isn't just one route to becoming a star. There is the most used route, and that is having the ability to act. But not just act - one popular movie critic once said, "Great actors come from great movies." That's how actors in the past like Al Pacino and Robert De Niro became movie stars. However, as you probably know, great movies nowadays are becoming a short supply, and the few that are made are typically not given that much of a marketing or distribution push.

With great movies in short supply, it's understandable that many actors nowadays have to think of other routes to becoming a star. One such path can be good looks. Tony Curtis landed a studio contract after a very brief appearance in a movie generated tons of mail from awe-struck females. Another way to becoming a movie star is having some sort of talent. Elvis Presley is a good example of this, having the ability to sing (as well as being good-looking.) Another ability that a number of people have used to become stars is martial arts. Jean-Claude Van Damme and Chuck Norris are two people who became stars despite their acting skills being limited. And so did the headline actor in Red Sun Rising, Don "The Dragon" Wilson. However, unlike a number of martial arts stars, Wilson never graduated from B movies to A movies. Why is this? After all, he was a martial arts champion, winning many competitions before entering movies. And his acting was no worse than many other martial arts stars. Thinking about this question for a while, I came up with some possible answers. First, when Wilson seriously started his acting career, it was in the late '80s, when A movie actioners were starting to die out in theaters. This alone greatly reduced the chance Wilson would be hired by a major studio. The second reason that I think that Wilson never made it to the mainstream was his first choice for a project with him as a leading man. He chose to be in a Roger Corman production (Bloodfist). Though in years past there have been plenty of people, from actors to directors, who have graduated from Roger Corman productions and gone to bigger things, by the late '80s things had changed. Now once you worked on a Corman film, you likely wouldn't go on to bigger things.

I also came up with a third and uncomfortable theory as to why Wilson never made it to the mainstream, and that's his ethnicity. Any minority in Hollywood can tell you it's often a struggle to get hired for any role in a Hollywood production. With Wilson having Japanese ancestry, I can imagine Red Sun Risingthere were some prejudiced producers who thought Wilson was "too ethnic" despite his having talent - despite the American public having embraced people like Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee. Whatever the reasons might have been, the results were that Wilson stayed in B movies. Most of them were not very good and wasted his talents. But Wilson did make a few gems that showed he could hold his own if the production around him was considerably better than his usual surroundings. Bloodfist 3 was one such movie. Another was Red Sun Rising, the movie I am reviewing here. In Red Sun Rising, Wilson plays Thomas Hoshino, a half Japanese police officer who is based in Tokyo. He and his partner Yuji (Yuji Okumoto, Inception) are pursuing Yamata (Soon-Tek Oh, Death Wish 4), an arms dealer who has ties with the Yakuza, the Japanese mafia. However, during their pursuit, Yuji is killed by Jaho (James Lew, Mission Of Justice), an assassin who works for Yamata. Thomas swears vengeance, and when he learns that Jaho and Yamata have fled Japan and are now in Los Angeles, Thomas travels there himself. There he finds himself partnered up with Karen Ryder (Terry Farrell, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) an L.A. police officer. Naturally, Thomas and Karen do not get along, especially since she and her captain (Ironside, Forced To Kill) are more concerned with the threat of a local gang war than with the pursuit of Thomas' targets. So while all that is going on, Thomas gets some help from his partner's martial arts trained uncle (Mako, P.O.W. The Escape), who starts to train Thomas on how to counter Jaho's seemingly supernatural fighting powers.

I think that a big reason why Red Sun Rising works as well as it does has to do with who made it. While Don Wilson was with Roger Corman, it was at a time when Corman's glory days were well in the past and Corman was now more concerned with filling 90 or so minutes rather than the quality of his product. Red Sun Rising was an Imperial Entertainment release, a B movie outfit that often made and released significantly higher quality than usual product, and it's one of their best releases. Part of the reason the movie works as well as it does is that it showcases its actors and the characters they play much better that your average B movie actioner. Naturally, the actor who gets the most attention by the filmmakers is Wilson. Now, I have to confess that while I have enjoyed other Don Wilson movies in the past, at the same time I have never considered him a good actor. Indeed, in Red Sun Rising there are parts of his performance that can understandably be criticized. For one thing, when his character has to show great emotion like anger or vowing revenge, Wilson comes across as pretty stiff and forced. Still, Wilson does bring some things in that all the same make his uneven acting palatable. Unlike some other famous B movie action stars in other movies, he seems to be taking his acting work pretty seriously, and he does seem to be trying his best in every scene that he appears in. You may call it an uneven performance, but it's never a lazy one. Another thing that Wilson brings to the movie is plenty of charisma. Just by looking at him, you can sense that his character is a very serious guy who is very determined to get what he's looking for, and that he won't hesitate to use violence to get what he wants. You can't help but keep your eyes on him whenever he's in a scene.

Wilson's performance is assisted by a screenplay that, unlike many other B movie scripts, fleshes out his character significantly. For example, we learn about the difficulties his character has had being half Japanese, and this results in a few quiet moments where Wilson does surprisingly well, giving his character a tender side. But the screenplay doesn't just flesh out Wilson's character. Terry Farrel's tough policewoman character gets several moments where she confesses vulnerability and a tortured past, like when she reveals why her character has some hostility towards Japanese people. Though her character is of course dismissive of Wilson's at first, we see her opinion change over time. (Yes, there's real character development to be found in Red Sun Rising, not just with Farrel's character.) As Farrel's character and Wilson's interact over the days, generating a surprising amount of genuine chemistry, the movie thankfully doesn't chicken out by not turning the relationship into a romantic one as well. However, while dialogue makes clear that the two do have sex, we don't actually get to see this, suggesting the filmmakers were still a little hesitant to portray an interracial relationship. Still, while the filmmakers may have been a little racist in that area of the movie, they did make effort to make the sensei character that Mako plays not be the stereotype you usually find in B movies. Instead of being a stiff and extremely formal figure, Mako's character is a lively and humorous figure while at the same time not insulting. His first appearance has him wearing a t-shirt with a big banana on it, he's shown to be living with two young and attractive females, and he cracks jokes here and there. Mako performs this offbeat character with great energy and enthusiasm, and proves what an extremely talented actor he was, one who sadly didn't always get the opportunity to show his talents off like he does in this film.

Somewhat disappointing, however, is how some of the other members in the cast are used. Michael Ironside is solid, but only gets a few brief scenes as the precinct's captain. As the bad guys, Soon-Tek Oh and James Lew don't have much to work with concerning the screenplay (they have limited dialogue, for one thing), but they do come across as pretty nasty pieces of work all the same that you'll hope will be punished by the end. But I think I've said enough about the actors and the characters they play, since I'm sensing that you are wondering if the movie delivers the goods in areas like action. Before I get to the action, I'd like to spend a little time talking about the general look of the movie. For a B movie, Red Sun Rising is a very good looking production. The photography (both day and night) is well done, and while the movie doesn't have the production values of a big budget studio movie, at the same time it doesn't look as tacky as Wilson's Roger Corman efforts. As for the action, it is pretty well done as well. The opening credits state that the fight scenes were constructed both by Wilson himself ("Executive in charge of fight action") and famed American B movie fight choreographer Art Camacho. Since this was an American production, it probably comes as no surprise that the fights don't have the energy or brutality found in the best martial arts movies from Asia. Instead, the fights come across as more realistic, with such touches as people being felled with a lot less blows inflicted on them. These fights actually were pretty effective to me. I got the feeling from these fights that in real life just one blow brings on a lot of pain and really weakens an opponent. As a result, though the fights were shorter and less spectacular compared to those found in many other martial arts movies, all the same they were exciting. Sometimes less can be more. And sometimes a martial arts movie as a whole can be more than what you're probably expecting, which Red Sun Rising managed to do for me.

(Posted May 29, 2017)

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See also: Bloodfist 3, Bloodfist 4, Redemption