It’s been well over a decade since I first discovered independent martial arts shortfilms online and I have humbly stood by and watched over the years as companies like Zero Gravity, The Stunt People, Reel Kick, VJ Films, Montanick Pictures, LBP Stunts Chicago and other individual stunt professionals around the country have woven into a thriving community that nourishes itself with immense talent for projects in and outside of Hollywood. Of course, the goal has been, and still is, to keep creating enough content to generate interest in feature-length kung fu and martial arts films on larger scales, a campaign that couldn’t have come at a better time as the genre itself had taken a beating in popularity since its heyday in the 70’s and early 90’s with a market now saturated by million-dollar blockbuster superhero movies, and if you’re a filmmaker like debut director, actor, martial artist and stuntman Dennis Ruel (Fievel Throws Down, Barrio Brawler, Rope-A-Dope, Rope-A-Dope 2), chances are that you have been feeling the pinch too.
Needless to say, it is not an easy road for the independent film scene these days with so many road blocks and hurdles in the way to financing and producing films like Ruel‘s newest feature, Unlucky Stars. However, despite the hinderances that were there, tenacity has benefitted this production greatly through to its completion, and all with the help of a willing and able handful, and a vision five years in the making for a style of action further echoed by today’s community of filmmakers and fans. All fandom aside though, one may wonder just how Ruel‘s new movie bodes from a critical point of few. As always, some will nitpick and analyze what they like or dislike about films such as this one, and that isn’t to say that critical measure is not important. It is, and it is always good to hold onto for the sake of better filmmaking, and Ruel and everyone involved in this process has had their fair share in the last fifteen to twenty years on both sides of the camera to observe as much feedback as required. Having said this, and having seen this film for myself this week, I’m quite keen to invoke how little reason there is to worry at all.
There are a lot of moving parts to this story which sees lead actors Ruel and Ken Quitugua (Damn 3, Title Pending 2, Bookie, Rope-A-Dope 2) in the respective roles of Josh, newly unemployed and called in as a favor for a friend of a friend named Ken, who operates as a private investigator – a job that often requires aire of charm and likeability, as well as thick skin and a fighting nerve when needed. The two instantly clash between their differing personalities, with Ken taking on a slightly more easy-going and passive approach to his line of work, whereas Josh is much more weary of his surroundings, especially when things get a little too violent. From there, the film takes off and showcases a number of characters on both sides of the good and evil spectrum; Actors Jose Montesinos and Sari Sabella, and co-star and action director Vlad Rimburg portray two struggling C-list action stars from different countries, and a disenfranchised stuntman, whose lives unwittingly intertwine under the mistaken impression taken by a local bookie looking to collect a fifteen-thousand dollar debt. As a result, people die and guns are emptied and junked before anyone can ever open fire, ensuing in high jinx, kidnapping, unfurling rivalries and perpetual martial arts action.
The continual approach taken here for Unlucky Stars has always been as an homage to the glory days of the Hong Kong action comedy, a subgenre of Asian cinema long-celebrated by fans far and wide who have familiarized themselves through word-of-mouth and consumption of VHS tapes and DVD discs over the years, with legendary former studio, Golden Harvest, serving as one of the biggest arbiters of martial arts action fandom. It’s influence has played a heavy role in the ascention of many an independent filmmaker, actor or a kung fu cinema fan, namely Ruel whose career notably dates back to his initial membership with The Stunt People prior to starring opposite founding member, actor and director Eric Jacobus in the 2006 indie action comedy, Contour (a.k.a. The Agent). It was a film that proved greatly beneficial as a milestone for the online action community in its early history of content creation, with experiences that have continued to embody the necessary base and overall experience for directing a movie of this caliber. Rest assured, Ruel is someone who, in the great company of our cast and crew, has the formula down packed, with a script that plays solidly to a beat-for-beat tone recognizable by any fan of Hong Kong cinema.
The comedy is almost non-stop and the acting is largely well done with great chemistry exhibited by much of our key cast including leads Ruel and Quitugua, and especially actor Steven Yu who plays Stan, Ken’s overzealous and hot-headed associate on the outside. Actors Montesinos and Sabella are terrific as their respective portrayals of flailing movie stars, with Sabella’s over-the-top delivery serving as plus; It also helps that Ruel paid close attention to how these characters get introduced, mingling some satire to accompany much of the drama and laughs as story unfolds. Actress Jessica Etheridge has a small supporting role next to Montesinos as the girlfriend and she doesn’t have a lot to do, but she holds her own for the limited time she’s on screen, providing some poignance and drama to story where it is needed and giving more ground to allow other characters to grow and develop enough for us to care about what happens next.
Sam Hargrave does a terrific job as Sam, the villain and shows he’s a much better actor than he proabably gets credit for, and it’s amazing he hasn’t gotten a starring role in something because he truly deserves it. The same goes for Emmanuel Manzanres who also stars in the film as one of Sam’s henchmen alongside Roy Chen whose own limited performance adds a delightful touch to the chemistry among his fellow villains ahead of the action, in addition to actor George Crayton who turns in a memorable attribution to classic Hong Kong cinema villainy.
Rimburg, co-star and the film’s princple coordinator and director on stunts and action also does a neat job with his role, clearly lending a nod or two to a few iconic Hong Kong movie roles of yesteryear. He is no stranger to stuntwork himself, having performed plenty of feats on screen in the last fifteen years while making his own movies. His efforts have paid off with the much-earned respect and love of quite a few directors and many stuntmen in the industry, although a lot of this is due to the magic he has been so capable of achieving for many years behind the camera to date, turning out stellar performances that have left A-list action veterans calling for his career ascension. It’s a work ethic he has now echoed into his contribution to Unlucky Stars, and it shows in the fights, with sequences that are nothing short of electric and featuring high-caliber martial arts action sequences performed by some of the most talented performers ever to hit the web in ten years.
Everything from various set-pieces, character and costume design to story format, stuntwork, silly humor and high-jinks amid the drama all play a role in the film’s ability to stand on its own as the love letter to Hong Kong action cimema it claims to be. Of course, filmed on a tight budget with limited resources, the movie does have its flaws. However, after all said and done, what it lacks in some areas, it truly makes up for in vision. Any noticeable errors are very few and minimal to the point where it is not really a huge issue in any aspect to be honest, and mainly because the film keeps its promise: A return to form. By all means as well, it helps to be somewhat familar with the Golden Harvest catalogue so as to get a handle on the film’s various old school Hong Kong cinema tropes, and if you’re curious, films like Wheels On Meals, Dragons Forever and the Lucky Stars franchise would all be great places to begin researching.
Unlucky Stars is a culmination of several generations of inspiration woven into one, with the birth of the internet and a dream to entertain and continue what momentum came following the crossover era of Asian films into the American mainstream twenty years ago. It’s a great start for Ruel ahead of what looks to be an alluring career in filmmaking with all he’s learned since Contour, and if you haven’t seen that film yet, you really need to. That film was only the beginning for Ruel, building on years of dedication and hardwork on top of fandom with respect to everything that makes the craft what it is today and the legacy it continues to carry with today’s artists, granting a film like Unlucky Stars a shining moment of its own.
American audiences today need more movies like this, and I’m hard-pressed to believe that argument doesn’t stand with merit anywhere else in the world.
READ MY INTERVIEW WITH FILMMAKER AND ACTOR DENNIS RUEL, AND THEN BE SURE TO WATCH UNLUCKY STARS FOR FREE AT UNLUCKYSTARSTHEMOVIE.COM