Best thing you’ll see all week: Lady Bloodfight

, | Movie reviews

I don’t mean to imply that Lady Bloodfight isn’t dumb, inconsistent, and familiar. It kind of is. The basics are nothing that haven’t been done a thousand times with everyone from Jean Claude van Damme to, uh…who’s doing these kinds of movies these days? John Cena? I haven’t been keeping up.

But for this kind of dumb, inconsistent, and familiar, Lady Bloodfight is as good as it gets.
Heck, better!

On its surface, this is a vehicle for Amy Johnston. “Who?” you might ask. You can hardly be blamed. I suspect there are two paths to this sort of role for anyone who isn’t Charlize Theron. You can either come up through MMA like Ronda Rousey and Gina Carano (I defy you to get through this mannishly clunky vehicle for a couple of women MMA fighters who shouldn’t quit their day jobs). Or you can try to come out from behind the scenes as a stuntwoman like Zoe Bell. The petite wan Johnston is the latter, and this is the first of a couple of leading roles she’s got queued up.

But to Lady Bloodfight’s immense credit, it doesn’t expect her to do all the heavy lifting. This is an ensemble movie, with the feet of its sizable cast planted firmly in Hong Kong. The opening sets up the story as a rivalry between two women, and then the other opening spins the story globally to draw in a few other women. Finally, the third opening comes to Johnston as a small-town waitress with a haunted past. After getting her ass kicked by four guys, but then kicking their asses even worse, she goes home and cracks open a Pabst Blue Ribbon. Out of a can. For the rest of the movie, she will be our Slight White Hope in an international cast of women fighters cast for their physical prowess and not just their looks.

“No offense, but you look more like a model than a fighter to me,” the feisty Australian says to the leggy Brazilian. Okay, she’s got a point there. The Brazilian chick’s capoeira is conspicuously absent from the fight scenes, because she clearly is a model and not a fighter. But for the women called out onto the mat, this is a cast more than capable of some high impact fight scenes. These aren’t just scenes where a bunch of stuntmen pretend to get punched, kicked, and judo thrown by the lead actress. It’s a movie where the women are accomplished stuntmen themselves, and they’re prepared to take some licks to prove it.

Furthermore, this is a movie that respects them for reasons other than sex appeal. The obligatory locker room scene opens with some raucous rock licks and you might figure, “Here we go with the Bay-esque ogling…” I totally would have been okay with that. But Lady Bloodfight isn’t interested. The scene is more concerned with women making friends with each other than baring their assets. That goes for the fight scenes as well. They’re all about grace and style instead of breast implants and short skirts. They’re about interaction instead of leering. Too few movies understand how to be sexy without being lascivious. Here are some of the most remarkable midriffs you’ve ever seen, and not a titillating shot in sight.

The petite wan Johnston gives it all she’s got. Which isn’t quite enough when it comes to the dramatic scenes. But, honestly? So what. She’s a better actor than her male peers in this genre, and she’s certainly better than the self-absorbed yahoos in the 80s who squatted as centerpieces in these kinds of movies. Yeah, I mean you, Norris, van Damme, and Seagal (at least Schwarzenegger had a sense of humor).

“I have no choice but to win,” she declares during the climactic battle. They wrote her that line. And by golly, she’s willing to try it. In her short movies and demo reels, she tries mightily to hold a resting tough-gal face. It’s pretty cute, because it just doesn’t become her. She’s on the verge of one smile that will ruin it all. But as a Small Town USA girl come to the Kumite in Hong Kong, out of her league and with nowhere to turn, she’s in a Goldilocks zone. With her blue eyes as pale as her skin and as uncertain as her character motivation, her chipper blonde sincerity borders on obliviousness. She reminds me of another golden boy whose chipper blonde sincerity bordered on obliviousness, until he got a few movies further into his career. But whereas Paul Walker cruised by on charisma, Johnson cruises by on sheer unmitigated grace. Her physicality is a delight to watch.

The rest of the cast is just as determined, but a bit more relaxed. Sassy Jenny Wu with her sucker, sunglasses, and randomly red contact lens. The powerfully built Jet Tranter as the aforementioned feisty Australian is as comfortable with dialogue as she is with fighting. Mayling Ng cuts an imposing figure as a grotesque lady Richard Kiel. Even Kathy Wu’s tight-lipped severity works for her character. But the real standout is the mischievous Muriel Hofmann as Mister Miyagi meets Gandalf with a totes adorb topknot. “I ask for a dragon,” she sighs skyward, “and you send me a Barbie.” Hofmann and Johnston are a great pair. Imagine Fred Ward and Joel Grey as hot chicks who could do their own stunts.

As for its dumbness, inconsistency, and familiarity, I don’t mind in the least, because it’s unique for how it could easily win a Bechdel cage match. Okay, sure, when it comes time for each of the three leads to reveal her backstory, one is motivated by a father, another by a husband, and another by a brother. But the dudes never physically appear in the movie. They’re plot devices more than characters. The dudes who do appear in the movie skulk around in the background, or dutifully fulfill their roles as punching bags so the women can get back to paying attention to each other. Until you’ve seen Lady Bloodfight, you might be inclined to lump it into the same category as Sucker Punch, but that’s selling it short. Zack Snyder puts a bunch of girls in a boy’s adventure. But Lady Bloodfight puts a bunch of women in a man’s adventure, and these women own the hell out of it.

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