Thursday, January 20, 2011

'Adventures of Johnny Tao' are worth taking

The Adventures of Johnny Tao: A Kung Fu Fable (aka "Quest of the Dragon") (2007)
Starring: Matthew Twining, Matt Mullins, Chris Yen, Kelly Perine, and Lindsay Parker
Director: Kenn Scott
Steve's Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

When his best friend Eddie (Mullins) is possessed by a demon who is turning the citizens of the small desert town of Dry Springs into zombies, gas station attendant and would-be Kung Fu master Johnny Dow (Twining) teams up with a gorgeous demon hunter named Mika (Yen), a bumbling sheriff's deputy (Perine) and his girl friend and town council candidate (Parker) to save the day. But how far can ancient mysticism and all the moves Johnny's learned from a lifetime of watching Kung Fu movies carry our heroes once the demon steals the guitar Johnny's father built around the spear that's the only thing that can kill him?

"The Adventures of Johnny Tao" is an excellent, low-budget action/adventure comedy in the spirit of the B-movies of the 1930s and 1940s--complete with bumbling cops, tough hoods, sinister secrets from the Orient that threaten to destroy us all, and a Little Guy as the hero-- which is crossed with a traditional Kung Fu tale storyline and infused with very modern American humor and pacing.

What's more, this film is superior to the majority of independent horror movies out there, be they the ones that get released directly to DVD or that show up on cable channels/ The script is is tighter, the acting is better, the camera-work and set design is generally more creative... it's just a good. In fact, with a more experienced crew and a few thousand dollars more worth of budget, this film could easily measure up against some of the recent big screen releases.

The staging of the various key battles of the demon and his minions were particularly impressive. The fight between the demon and the butt-kicking, motorcycle riding demon hunter played by Yen was very suspenseful and its climax startling, while the final battle between Johnny and demon at the fortune cookie factory was very cool visually--with thousands of scraps of papers containing fortunes swirling in the air around them while they fight.

This is not to say the film is perfect. While the filmmakers definitely have every dollar showing on the screen, there are some rough spots that I think can attributed to budget constraints, and perhaps inexperience on the part of crew members.

As impressive as the fight scenes are, they still feel choreographed in many instances; this is particularly true of the fight that introduces us to Mika. Then there's the fight where Johnny takes on a zombie with a shopping cart... it's a Jackie Chan "homage", but its too slow-moving and it once again feels overly choreographed and staged.

There are also some odd costuming choices that jarred me out of the film, like the local smalltown thug who walks around in a viking helmet.

However, the negative stuff aside, I have to say that the sound editing in this film is up to the highest levels of professional standards. The foley artists here (led by Darwin Clarke and Tony Kucenski) did a FANTASTIC job. I can't count the number of low-budget action and adventure films that don't pay enough attention to the power of sound. A fight scene falls flat and seems exactly like what it is--a couple of guys playing make-believe--if the exaggerated "thwaks" and sounds of things breaking aren't put in in post-production. A suspenseful moment is ruined if the right ambient sounds aren't heard. All hail the director of "Johnny Tao" and his sound department, because they did a MASTERFUL job on this frequently underappreciated element of filmmaking!

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