Screener Review: EYES OF THE ROSHI (2016)

It’s a tricky thing trying to cast a martial artist for a major role in a movie. It’s the kind of thing you don’t take lightly and it depends on what kind of film you’re going for to help execute your vision, and there definitely is one here in Jon Mark Nail’s latest feature effort, Eyes Of The Roshi. Is it the vision you would expect? Well, again, that’s entirely up to you, although there are critiques worth noting should you choose to look this title up when it’s released.

On its face, the film is pitched as a nod to the cinematic style of the Coen Brothers and Quentin Tarantino, telling of an epic saga of tragedy, vengeance and redemption with a few doses of philosophy and spirituality to boot. We eventually meet Adam, thickly-accented Vientnamese-American drifter with extraordinary fighting skills whose pacifistic nature is often challenged by chance confrontations with troublesome people. One such incident near the top of the film sets off as a catalyst as our protagonist finds himself taking on a ruthless businessman, a bounty, and a mysterious, and a facially-scarred Vietnamese man who advances the release of a American prisoner still seething with a lust for blood.

We’ve seen this plot in similar movies and television dramas over the years, something which doesn’t really take way from this film, to be honest. It’s fun to watch some of these characters evolve and it was interesting to see the film’s star, Adam Nguyen take on a role almost in the vein of Kwai Chang Kane; Nguyen’s is a character that prefers a quiet, simple life with friends and honest work while learning how to use things like lawnmowers and trucks, and of course, Raja Yoga; His training scenes are hugely impressive given his specialty as a real-world Yoga master and Karate-do expert, and so they do him great favors when showcasing his craft.

That said, I can’t say the same for much of the action sequences. Some of the choreography is nice to watch, but the fights in general don’t live up much to the film’s expectations as a martial arts picture. Most of the editing made it none too impressive as it’s largely used as a tool for directors to help bypass an actor’s inability to perform action themselves, even here as Nguyen puts his best foot forward for someone in his sixties, sans the screenfighting experience of thesps like Jackie Chan, Kwan Tak Hing, or even the late legend himself, Bruce Lee, for all the film’s earlier hype. Hence my initial point at the top of this review, which now brings us to the next issue, the acting.

Right off the bat, most of the film’s supporting cast does a requisite job of filling in the blanks and helping to keep the audience engaged, although it’s not until the second half when the stakes finally surmount. Actor Chris Van Cleave lends the film some much needed energy with a robust performance as criminal businessman Hogan Dodd whose stronghold on the town is what either make or break the law, while actress Amanda Dunn gives the film a female lead we can cheer for as her own tragic story of love, loss and infidelity ultimately finds its way Adam’s tale as her savior at just the right time. Eric Roberts lasts just long enough in the role of Booker, a bounty hunter who gets in just a little on some of the film’s dark comedy and conversational levity with co-stars Jonathan Marten as Marty, and Seth Marten who plays Itchy, and apart from this, I honestly wish I could say more given his usual, fierce acting caliber.

Co-star and producer Ethan Marten terrorizes the screen as Carey, a heavily scarred, gristled, brooding, intense and menacing former soldier-turned-hitman with a penchant for music, flossing his teeth, and killing people. Where the story falls on his end is ultimately met with a certain lack of resolve long after the film has already loaded up on so many characters and excess dialogue – the result of a script that tries hard to deliver on the Coen/Tarantino effect and fails almost as much as the musical score does in trying to maintain the film’s edginess in some areas.

Needless to say, in the end, it’s the services of but a handful that lend Eyes Of The Roshi its just dues, but for a film meant to be weighted on its lead actor, what we are left with is a film misses its mark, and all with a principal performance that looks coached at the last minute with every line. Nguyen bodes well with a certain tenderness that serves nicely and genuine on screen, but his acting is almost completely wooden and robotic, and ultimately, a lot more could have been done with a finer-tuned actor, better fight action and editing, and even less filler throughout a story that didn’t try to be three things at once.

Nail, making his feature debut following a string of shortfilms from 2009 and on, prides himself on being bold with ideas, crazy, and unafraid to throw caution to the wind. He says so in his director’s statement, and its a perfectly fine philosophy to live up to and build from, especially in his field. Bearing this in mind, however, it’s films like Eyes Of The Roshi that are worth making exceptions to when acknowledging one’s own Dao as a filmmaker. Throwing caution to the wind doesn’t always have its merits, especially in an age where the martial arts genre has been reduced to a cult niche of fans and the stunt industry still has yet to get its own Oscar category. It’s films like Eyes Of The Roshi you want to cheer on without the struggle of merely supporting its “good parts”.

As an indie-produced crime flick with some mild comedy, R-rated thrills and a contemplative tone, I would recommend it to anyone who loves some solid drama with some good old-fashioned, violence laden with a dose of shock value as the amount of gore in the film’s second half surely comes in handy. Beyond that, don’t count on Eyes Of The Roshi to cater to your needs as a doable crime drama with martial arts as an added spectacle, otherwise you likely won’t believe your own eyes.