Norris vs. Kurosawa!

Feb 7, 2007 at 12:00 am

The Chuck Norris American Hero Collection
MGM Home Entertainment

Years before he became an ironic icon for dipshit Internet jokesters, Chuck Norris was notorious for shooting bazookas at terrorists and crisping evil Vietnamese with flamethrowers, all the while keeping his finely groomed Republican beard in perfect check. Between 1984 and 1988, old Chuck was middle America's white-bread whoop-ass God — clocking in with, count 'em, three Missing in Action's and two Delta Force flicks. Soft-spoken, but with a rhino-killing kick, some of the star's best four years of work are now collected in an action-packed DVD box set — The Chuck Norris American Hero Collection. That's right: You get 538 minutes of manly goodness crammed with jungle rumbles, motorcycle jumps, drug cartels, grenade launchers, homoerotically tight blue jeans and the finest acting Norris did when not paired with a pooch. Reagan might be dead, but that won't stop nostalgic couch potatoes from enjoying these ruined remnants of his American dream. —Jeremy Wheeler


Criterion Collection

Want to know a secret? Great films, even when they're "classics," are supposed to be fun. And a great director like Akira Kurosawa can spread profundity on like peanut butter whenever he gets the urge, but he's also no slouch at creating a popcorny good time. That's even more apparent after viewing Yojimbo and Sanjuro, Kurosawa's early-'60s crowd-pleasing (and critic-pleasing) samurai films, now reissued in a handsome box.

Kurosawa didn't invent the genre of "jidaigeki" (samurai period pieces), but he cross-pollinated it with the Western and installed his anti-hero muse, Toshiro Mifune, as its scrubby, surly epicenter. The resulting brew of murky virtue, morbid wit, devilish swordplay and aesthetic cunning in Yojimbo proved so successful the Toho studio practically begged Kurosawa to make the sequel, Sanjuro, the "sassy kid brother" (as critic Michael Sragow writes in the DVD's accompanying notes) to the universally well-regarded first film.

These cinematic bookends linger on the retina not only because of Kurosawa's ingenuity as a director, but because of the synergy between him and his leading actor. Mifune is effortlessly raw as Sanjuro, the slobby alley cat of a warrior whose bulk and Brando-esque bellyscratching disguise a formidable lethality. It's easy to see how Mifune's characterization subsequently threaded its DNA through hard-bitten Occidental rogues like Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name and the X-Men's Wolverine. "I'll get paid for killing," Sanjuro intones at one point. "And this town is full of men who are better off dead." Only a guy this tough could prove the adage "Don't bring a knife to a gun fight" isn't as ironclad as it seems.

Films this immortal deserve the deluxe treatment, and once again Criterion hasn't cut corners. The disc's digital transfer is crisp and spotless, with dense blacks and variegated grays that show off Kurosawa's masterful flat-focus compositions. The subtitles offer pleasantly colloquial translations, and Masaru Sato's formidable score (equal parts traditional Japanese music and brassy Hollywood bombast) swells beautifully in Dolby Digital 3.0. Even the packaging feels good in the hands — the pages of the accompanying booklets are printed with the trompe l'oeil grain of fine paper, and each disc is emblazoned with a sly shogunate-style crest teasing at each movie's denouement (crossed pistols for Yojimbo, red and white blossoms for Sanjuro). Kurosawa scholar Stephen Prince adds his insights about each film's deeper thematic points on the commentary track, but the two Toho-commissioned documentaries about the making of each film are easily the standouts among the DVD extras. "A truly good movie is really enjoyable too," says Kurosawa at the beginning of one of the documentaries. See, told you so. —Violet Glaze



The Korean hospital in Infection can barely function. Its supplies are low, nurses are quitting, unpaid doctors are overworked and delusional patients roam the halls. The staff must refuse new patients and transfer others. When a hospital error sees a burn victim die, the doctors panic and stage a cover-up. Infection's dissection of an understaffed, financially strapped hospital is downright chilling, if not topical. Just when you think you understand where the flick is headed, it changes gears when an ambulance arrives with a dude whose body is ravaged by a rash that's turning him into a gruesome pile of green slop. It doesn't take a stint in med school to see the ragtag staff will soon become infected. While quenching your thirst for gore, Infection evolves into an allegory on living in the age of bird flu, E. coli and anti-bacterial hand wash. The actual virus becomes a subtext for a slew of the staff's personal issues too, like apathy, self-doubt and helplessness. Infection has more in common with David Cronenberg films and his focus on bodily invasion and mutation than with its Asian film counterparts. We're constantly bombarded with commercials for medical malpractice lawyers and prescription drugs with side effects that sound worse than what they cure. So, yeah, the fear in Infection is real. —Paul Knoll


Warner Brothers

As the poster puts it — "The skill of gymnastics. The kill of karate." No, this ain't a dream, it's Gymkata, an old 1985 VHS treasure finally thrust onto DVD for popcorn-loving cinemasocists everywhere. The story follows gymnastics champ Kurt Thomas as he enters a fighting competition in a far-off fictional country called Parmistan, where only by his unique style of gymkata does Thomas survive ninja attacks as well as hordes of cannibalistic townsfolk hell-bent on eating his ass up. Amazingly, it all ties in with an SDI-style missile-defense system, if you can believe that. Enter the Dragon's director, Robert Clouse, helmed the flick, but don't expect any classy shit here — not when every other corner yields parallel bars and vault horses for Thomas to work his magic mojo. With high kicks and hot chicks, Gymkata snags the gold for outrageous in this "very special" acrobatic DVD release. —Jeremy Wheeler

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