Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The Instructor (1981), by Don Bendell

Some movies start out letting you know they're gonna be awesome. The Instructor opens with two men jogging, but loses focus on them after mere seconds to instead show a street fight between a bearded punk and a punk woman named "Cookie." She almost cuts his dick off with an axe. Castration is usually a good sign for a movie, and I'm glad this one decided to put such a thing--or nearness to it--at the beginning. It was like being greeted with a hug rather than a handshake. The encounter that ensued proved to be a fulfilling one. Let it be known that The Instructor is something special, even if it's not always entertaining.

Our joggers from the beginning are the titular Instructor and his pupil, Thumper Rhodes. The Instructor, as you might expect, teaches at a local karate school. They exposit for us that long ago, the Instructor's wife was raped and murdered by Bud Hart, who runs a rival martial arts academy. Hart's goons are the punks we saw at the beginning of the movie. We follow the Instructor and Thumper as they increasingly come to blows with Hart and his mob, while they are stalked by a ninja who turns out to in truth be a mentally handicapped man who wants to become a karate tournament champion. At one point this man clubs a fellow martial artist to death with his trophy, in a plot I don't remember going anywhere. In any case, this character exists to provide "comic relief" and to be beaten up by children. In the end, the Instructor probably defeats Bud Hart, and gets the girl I didn't know he was after.

The Instructor is, um. Puzzling. On one hand, it hits all the buttons I want to have hit whilst watching a martial arts movie. It features rugged dudes with mustaches and the whole Godfrey Ho-esque feel (while admittedly still being too American to be as crazy as something like Ninja the Protector). Yet I couldn't keep my focus on it for some reason. Even as I was being charmed by things like people catching ninja stars with their shoes and kicking people off motorcycles, I felt a weird fuzziness over the whole thing that left me feeling disinterested. I watched this movie three times for this review, and I still can't entirely remember if Bud Hart died, and if so, how he did. I don't remember when exactly the Instructor's new girlfriend enters the plot. I do remember being confused when we got a flashback to the Instructor finding his wife's corpse. That happened much later than I feel it should have. This is another movie where I feel like it was edited out of order, while knowing fully that that was not the case. Ordinarily I would find this sort of feeling pleasurable, but something is holding me back in this case.

It may be that there's something off about the fight scenes. They don't grip me as much as the material around them--I wouldn't call them lethargic, or lazy, but those two words nag at my mind for some reason. I just remember zoning out during the fight scenes in particular. I think I was bored by them, only really recalling one segment where an Asian martial artist showed up to very poorly use nunchuks and make stereotypical "Hwah!" noises. I probably remember that because it was rather offensive. I also remember the "ninja" getting his ass kicked by children, because I don't easily forget scenes of people being kicked around by kids. These fight scenes are often set to music, but I'm spoiled on the soundtracks from movies like Miami Connection, so these songs didn't hook my attention either, instead feeling as intrusive as the songs in bad musicals.

But there was still a lot I liked about this. Bud Hart is a particularly interesting villain, being not only an evil martial arts instructor as per action movie tropes, but also functioning as a mafia villain, and blaxploitation villain a little bit as well. There's a scene of him having a fancy restaurant dinner with an Italian dude, where they have one of those hush-hush Godfather-style conversations. He's also racist, calling some of the black characters slurs--one almost suspects that he's trying to buy out Sugar Hill's club on the side. He even dips into sci-fi villain territory, beating Khan Noonien Singh to the punch by a whole year in forcing his enemy to shout his name dramatically. Shatner would be proud.

Overall, I liked The Instructor, but this is definitely one that's not for everyone. Pop in Furious or Games of Survival first to get a feel on what you're stepping into. It may shake your focus a little bit, especially when we get to the kickboxing tournament. Actually, maybe slap some Mexican wrestling movies into the mix while you're at it. You're going to need to pick up a taste for endless spectator fights to make it through this one.

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