The last six years have been some of the more eventful for German stunt trio Can Aydin, Phong Giang and Yoon Cha-Lee. Working and operating under their Reel Deal Action banner, the compilation of independent projects they’ve done next to the numerous stunt credits they share on major studio titles are a testament to become something much more than a run-of-the-mill indie label.
20th Century Fox’s 2017 German theatrical release of Plan B: Scheiss Auf Plan A, for all intents and purposes, was a cornerstone of their progress in attempting to bring genuine acting and screenfighting talent to the big screen for martial arts action fans. The genre still tends to prove difficult to take, however, but that doesn’t change the fact that a film like Plan B has an audience, and for that matter, our aforementioned trio of burgeoning action stars.
That knowledge is also shared by James Mark, based in Canada and also shares a stake on screen in stunt performance and coordinating, and in recent years with directing, having taken to the market stage thanks to Raven Banner’s international acquisition of his debut at the helm, Kill Order. Mark’s next order of business came as something of a quiet surprise when select set pics started popping up on social media for his latest, On The Ropes, marking a fortuitous collaboration among a cadre of stunt professionals with an interest in acting, storytelling and creating.
Indeed, filmmaking is a package deal, too. For many of these stuntmen, legends like Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee were more than stars. They were the living, breathing, exemplary backbone of what it means to be professional, which embodies why it is there have been so many independent groups and individuals who’ve emerged in the online community through their own passion for the vision and craft in the last twenty years. Undoubtedly, the same goes for Mark, Aydin, Giang and Yoon, and there is no question that there is more to what they can apply than just falling and stacked kicks and punches to the face.
In all clarity, this is not to say that they’re instantly perfect in everything they do. They know it, and they certainly knew it during the production of On The Ropes, which bodes as much more hefty effort on drama and slow-burn pacing between fight scenes than just wall-to-wall action. The story itself is worth watching play out between Aydin and Giang who play two brothers, John and Lee, who’ve long been adopted by a crimeboss known locally as “The Old Man”, who has raised them to be able to fight and handle themselves – mainly by fighting each other in the ring of a small boxing gym.
Years later into adulthood and with leadership about to change hands amidst suspicion about rat in their organization, their father suddenly turns up dead, leaving both John and Lee seemingly grief stricken. The film doesn’t take too long to make it obvious just who the culprit is and it’s only a matter of time before things start boiling over to the point of no return, leaving John fending for himself and ballet dancer Chloe (Tina Pereira), the woman he loves, before eventually coming to terms with the truth about his adopted father, and ultimately, a fatal showdown with the man he’s called “brother” his entire life.
Aydin stands front and center as the principal half of our two-hander between him and fellow Reel Deal film cohort, actor and martial artist Phong Giang. Their acting tends to deliver on slightly shorter expectations apart from some of the more flourishing and better dialogue moments on screen, sans fight scene performing. You can see it in both actors, especially Aydin on whom much of the premise focuses as the film progresses forward, while much of the film’s dramatic caliber rests on the aforementioned Pereira, and actors Peter Frangella who plays “The Old Man” and Joseph Di Mambro in the role of rivaling crime boss, Bruno. Actor Matthew Sauvé plays Detective Barsetti to whom our protagonist, John, has been quietly and reluctantly confiding in regarding the Old Man’s dealings.
The writing is where On The Ropes takes a major stumble at a certain point later in the movie. It teeters just a tiny bit in the second half as you’re watching and observing how John’s relationship with Chloe progresses amid his internal conflict with claiming the leadership title of his crime family. By the third quarter, he faces condemnation by the cops after being attacked which doesn’t make much sense and does little for Barsetti’s detective work much less his likeability when he and John’s girlfriend whose concern for John’s life seemingly wears quickly thin in the film.
The action, direction and fight choreography are as top-notch as you would have it from a team such as what On The Ropes enlists. Competitive mixed martial artist Aristote Luis gets a few more lines for another brier role that rematches him against his fellow Plan B headliners Aydin and Giang along with a few other familiars fans of online action may recognize.
Alexandre Bailly, who I’ve known of since about ten years ago in a Z-Team shortfilm collaboration, gets a few shining moments of his own, including a fight scene as one of three assassins pit against Aydin’s character. Action actor and stunt performer Gui DaSilva, best known for serving as one of several doubles Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther in the MCU; DaSilva’s screen fighting prowess, much like his colleagues on this project, is second to none, and you need only watch him throw his best kick once before literally having nothing to say after catching lockjaw.
There are just few plot holes in the film, but nothing worth getting too nitpicky about. At least one painfully noticeable consistency issue comes during the ballet room fight between actors Aydin and Yoon in which character Chloe’s body seemingly moves by itself a few times. The fight scene itself is spectacular as usual with watching these two work, but with Chloe’s body clearly visbile and displaced from time to time, it does distract from the fight.
The one-on-one finale between Giang and Aydin lens a much more rewarding bookend to the film’s closure that falls short regarding to the confusing ending surrounding characters John and Chloe, and their fate. Suspending disbelief is optional if you pay less attention to the dialogue, although you definitely are left a little unfulfilled by the story. The writing starts off feasibly well for the first half of the film despite some mild stumbles, but the second half leaves you wondering what the heck happened, and why.
The movie isn’t entirely left in defeat of its flaws, however. Much like the subtext between our “Old Man” and his sons in a flashback sequence, On The Ropes strives for true victory by staring tenaciously into center-ring, and rebounding where and when it needs to on select moments of drama, and specifically when it comes to amazing fight choreography and exquisite film performance.
Mark’s ability to craft an albeit decent feature-length story with kinetic and energizing martial arts action remains buoyant, save for the shortcomings that come with being an independent filmmaker. The quality and potential in the process of it all are there. It just needs more sharpening.