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I’m fast becoming a fan of Medusa Pictures’ Hong Kong Legends and Premier Asia titles, so when I was given the opportunity to review one of their latest releases I jumped at the chance. Having caught only glimpses of the original anime Fist of the North Star, I figured that I’d be in a fairly good position to impartially evaluate this live-action version. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect going in, but what I got was more than I bargained for…

Fist of the North Star: Collector's Edition
Set in a post-apocalyptic future, Fist of the North Star tells the story of two rival schools of martial arts: North Star and Southern Cross. After murdering the Fist of the North Star, Ryuken (Malcom McDowell), the leader of the Southern Cross, Lord Shin (Costas Mandylor), sets himself up as a tyrannical warlord intent on subjugating what’s left of civilisation. Fearing the prophecy that foretells of the return of the Fist of the North Star, who will one day transform the Earth from a barren wasteland to a paradise, Lord Shin and his men ambush Ryuken’s son, Kenshiro, kidnapping his lover Julia and leaving him for dead. However, Kenshiro miraculously survives the barbaric assault and sets out to avenge both his father’s death, and to rescue his beloved Julia. The time has come for Kenshiro to fulfil the prophecy and for the Fist of the North Star to return…

Where to begin? I really wanted to like Fist of the North Star, if only because of some half-remembered scenes of ultra violence from the anime. Unfortunately the live-action version does away with most of the action, not to mention a vaguely coherent plot! The standard of acting is very poor throughout, and while there can be no doubt about his physical appearance or athletic prowess, lead Gary Daniels just doesn’t have the acting ability to carry off the role of Kenshiro (and his strange hybrid accent really started to grate after a while). However, Daniels didn’t really have a lot to work with in terms of a script, and it would be hard for De Niro to make Fist of the North Star’s dialogue work, let alone a martial-artist come ‘actor’.

Fist of the North Star: Collector's Edition
The special effects are, for the most part, woeful, while the ‘action’ sequences are about as stimulating as watching paint dry. Daniels addresses the problems with the fight scenes in both the commentary and his interview, citing director Tony Randel as the chief reason for the lack of excitement. The fights are shot way too close to the actors, and are comprised mainly of quick cuts that detract from the original choreography (which in itself is laboured). As if this wasn’t bad enough, Kenshiro never really faces enough of a challenge as he only ever confronts a handful of enemies at any one time. After you’ve seen Keanu Reeves take on one hundred Hugo Weavings this sort of thing just leaves you cold. The final battle between Ken and Shin isn’t too bad, but by the time this rolled around I’d lost any interest I had in the picture and was simply waiting to see how they’d wrap it all up. Poorly, was the answer to that…

Fist of the North Star arrives with an anamorphic widescreen transfer, at the slightly cropped ratio of 1.78:1. The picture itself is a mixture of good and bad, but thankfully it’s mostly the former. The image is fairly sharp for the most part, revealing a reasonable level of detail, and colour rendition is pretty much dead on. Black levels have a tendency to fluctuate between interior and exterior shots, with the latter looking almost grey at times, but shadow detail remains good throughout. The aforementioned exterior shots do feature a lot more grain than the interior shots, but overall it’s perfectly within acceptable limits. As one would expect this isn’t going to challenge the best, but it’s a perfectly acceptable effort from Medusa.

Fist of the North Star: Collector's Edition
Presented in English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, Fist of the North Star sounds fine for the most part, but it simply can’t compete with the best modern soundtracks. Dialogue is generally clear—although given the quality of said dialogue it might be better if the opposite were true–-while the rest of the mix strikes a decent balance between the front and the rear of the soundstage. Bass is suitably powerful, and although discrete effects are fairly limited the score is an almost constant presence in the rears. While this lends some much-needed atmosphere to the mix, the score is unfortunately of the ‘straight to video’ variety (think extremely tacky).

Along with the film itself, disc one includes a feature-length commentary from star Gary Daniels and cult film director Ross Boyask. Trivia fans might be interested to know that Boyask acted as the fight co-ordinator for a little known film called Beyond Recognition, which just happens to have been written and directed by an old school friend of mine. The track itself is a lively one, with plenty of participation from both parties, although it is Boyask who drives proceedings by asking Daniels leading questions relating to the on-screen events. Daniels is only too happy to discuss the film, and doesn’t shy away from criticising both it, and his own performance. Disc one also contains a selection of trailers for various Hong Kong Legends and Premier Asia releases.

Moving on to disc two we come to the Promotional Archive, and the fifty-something minute North Star versus Southern Cross: The Making of Fist of the North Star. This was made for Japanese television, and as such is narrated in Japanese throughout with accompanying subtitles for the ‘foreign’ language sections. However, for some strange reason one of my standalone DVD players didn’t pick the subtitle track up, but moving to another machine sorted this. Also in this section are an Animated Photo Gallery, which runs for a little over two minutes and contains dozens of pictures of Gary Daniels looking hard. Finally in this section we have both the original theatrical, and the UK promotional trailers.

Fist of the North Star: Collector's Edition
The Behind the Scenes menu holds yet more featurettes, the first of which is Battle Plans, a fifteen-minute piece that takes us behind the scenes of various choreography and fight rehearsal sessions. This is one of those featurettes that will probably appeal to martial arts aficionados, but I got very little from it. The fourteen minute featurette Gory, Gory, Hallelujah! explores the methods used to achieve the film’s blood-spattered special effects, and makes for interesting viewing at least once, while Roving Eye is a short segment in which we’re shown some handheld behind the scenes footage from the personal archives of Gary Daniels. This is actually a pretty amusing little bit of throwaway fluff, but it’s probably not something many will return to time and again.

The Star Focus menu is all about martial artist and star, Gary Daniels. I initially though this would be a five-minute interview interspersed with some footage from the film, but I couldn’t have been more wrong! Weighing in at a hefty forty nine minutes, Art Imitating Life is an in-depth interview with the actor in which he discusses everything from his martial arts background, to his love of working on action films. Gary is unusually candid, and isn’t afraid to vent his frustration at director Tony Randel’s inability to effectively direct the film’s action scenes. One wonders what improvements might have been made had Gary and his choreography team had been given more control over that element of the production. I guess we’ll never know. The interview itself is cut together nicely, and moves along at a good pace without trying to cram too much into the running time (although a lot is covered). All in all this is a particularly interesting and informative look into the man behind the fist.

Warrior in Motion is slightly less inspiring. This short featurette basically shows Gary going through his paces in a gym, be it against real or imaginary opponents. While Gary’s moves are undoubtedly impressive, I’m not one to get excited by what amounts to five minutes or so of shadow boxing…

Fist of the North Star: Collector's Edition
So there you have it. While it’s true that Fist of the North Star isn’t a particularly good film by any stretch of the imagination, Medusa has put together a great package that goes some way towards compensating for the shortcomings of the feature itself. Aural and visual elements are solid, if uninspiring, but it is the superb array of supplemental features—most notably the commentary, making of, and the Gary Daniels interview—that really deserve a special mention. In spite of its ‘straight to video’ failings fans of the film should rush out and buy this set as soon as possible, but I strongly urge the uninitiated to ‘try before you buy’!