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Review: 'Dogs of Chinatown' (2009)

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Published/updated on October 25, 2008

The Stunt People's Eric Jacobus and Ray Carbonel choreograph and star in writer-director Micah Moore's feature film debut. DOGS OF CHINATOWN is an ambitious indie effort that combines intense Hong Kong-style martial arts and gunplay with a hard-boiled crime story involving gun-totting assassins, ruthless gangsters, deadly martial arts masters, and body-pierced strippers. The film's ambitions are far exceeded by limited resources but within these constraints there lays a bold visual style supported by downright nasty action that's too entertaining to miss.

In his second feature-length film after CONTOUR, Jacobus plays a suicidal assassin named Jack who is hired by a Triad boss (Rudy Chu) after rescuing his mistress, Jin (Huyen Thi), from Mafia thugs. While carrying out missions against the mob and honing his fighting skills, Jack secretly falls in love with Jin and befriends a Chinese martial arts master (Brian Lee) working for the Triad. After a Russian hitman hired by the mob begins targeting the Triad's operations, Jack attempts to bring them all down single-handedly. Jealous of the favored position this "gweilo" has attained in the Chinese crime organization, a ruthlessly ambitious member known as The General (Carbonel) uses a startling revelation about how the gang war began in an attempt to destroy Jack and his closest friends.

In terms of production standards DOGS OF CHINATOWN is near the bottom of the stack but deserves praise for achieving more in terms of visual flair than most films at this level. Lack of funds show up in the choice of sets, extras, casting, acting, and wardrobe. For instance, Jacobus generally wears the same clothes he does in his Stunt People films and I even caught him wearing a KWOON t-shirt. That may have been an intentional inside joke but it's still amateurish and easily remedied on a budget by having characters wear "uniforms," a cheap set of clothes they wear through the whole production that maintains the image your characters are supposed to have. Too often I felt like I was watching Eric Jacobus and not Jack, a problem not helped by the star's limited acting experience although he did a decent job for coming from an almost exclusive stunt/fight mentality. He has the looks and moves of a star and need only improve on his acting.

DOC does look a lot more polished than CONTOUR and I credit Moore for coming up with consistently interesting images marked by intentionally artificial cityscapes, atmospheric blue tone filters and lively camera work. This is hampered some by unevenness with the visuals including fake gun effects and dull-looking locations such as a generic dojo. Good lighting, the bane of no-budget productions, is not an issue and Moore seems to have mastered a few techniques that give his film a unique, atmospheric look similar to a live-action Mamoru Oshii film. There is a gratuitous dance club sequence that is overlong but does feature some cool lighting that I have not seen before. Coupled with dramatic perspective cinematography and swooping handheld work during action scenes, Moore displays traces of filmmakers like Wong Kar-wai, Tsui Hark and Corey Yuen. The Hong Kong influence is strong with this one.

Speaking of the Hong Kong influence, the action of Jacobus and Ray Carbonel is first-rate. Fans of their short films will not be surprised but those unfamiliar with their work will be. Although they learned their craft entirely on their own, the level of their screen fighting is superior to Hollywood standards and favorably comparable to Hong Kong's best standards. I believe they have done better work, particularly with regard to using the environment around them but this is still a strong showing for them.

Jacobus delivers an amazing physical performance, highlighted by an aerial flip onto a breakaway table during an intense duel in a restaurant and a fierce last-man-standing rampage through the Triad's headquarters following a final match with Carbonel.

Some of the back and forth sparring is a little repetitive but what makes up for it is a sprinkling of killer finishing moves. Moore and his action directors seem to understand the importance of ending a fight with a strong exclamation mark. What I like most about the film's fight scenes is that they're elaborate and creative yet functional. Its Hong Kong style action but with grappling, locks and deadly self defense maneuvers mixed in. I cannot stress this enough. Jacobus and his cohorts are working with the latest trends in screen fighting and doing it better than a lot of professionals who are still obsessed with gimmicks employing shaky cams, MTV editing and wirework.

A third cast member who deserves credit for his screen fighting performance is Brian Lee, a trained martial artist who in Jacobus' words had to "untrain himself" in order to adapt his real-world skills to film fighting. It seems to have worked. Lee's match with Carbonel features phenomenal sparring and is only hindered by the setting of a plain-looking martial arts studio.

There is less action than I had hoped for. Moore seems determined to balance his film's action with his story. I would applaud this decision if it actually made his film better but that's not the case. Besides his better visuals, the film's greatest asset is the stunt fighting. Because of this, the film could have benefited from more martial arts and less bad line delivery from amateur actors like the guy playing the Russian hitman. That's a perfect example of bad filler. His scenes should have been cut from the movie. His character is non-essential and his performance drags down the rest of the cast, most of whom are only marginally better. A good rule for any filmmaker is to build around the strengths of available assets and cut out or minimize the weaknesses. This is the major mistake that Moore makes. He tries to tell a story that is beyond his means to adequately convey. Always match your budget, otherwise you end up with a previsualization of a quality movie at best and a really bad B-movie at worst.

Bill Oberst Jr., playing the mob's second in command is the film's best actor and with his unique looks I can see him carving out a successful dramatic career in Hollywood as a heavy, something he seems to be doing with roles in a couple upcoming horror films. Moore should have given this guy far more screen time and a meatier role and cut out some of the other supporting "actors" altogether. The crime bosses would be at the top of my list, right under the Russian.

The film's soundtrack is unusually strong for a production of this small scale. Some good decisions were made on incorporating moody tunes that generally enhance the intended tone of the film. There are a few musical missteps such as the loud track playing over the fight between Lee and Carbonel. This sort of gritty noir film works better with a minimalist approach when it comes to music, especially during action scenes. But still, I love the choice of Radiohead-like pop music that is used more towards the end and during the final credits.

I can easily find fault with DOGS OF CHINATOWN on a host of issues that mostly boils down to the filmmakers taking on too much for their first project. Another issue is the excessive adult elements in the film that include profanity, partial nudity, sexuality, drug use, and extreme violence such as stabbing a guy in the neck with a broken bottle or implying the splitting open of another guy's jaw on the edge of a table. If handled correctly, I don't have a problem with any of these things but they mostly come across as shallow in this film largely because the film rarely succeeds in achieving a suspension of disbelief. It's a little like watching a porno or exploitation movie that is trying and failing to be taken seriously as an art film. That isn't to say DOC is without merit. It's actually quite entertaining for a low-budget movie and displays a level of unapologetic audacity, visual panache and ass-kickery rarely seen outside of Asian action cinema. Viewers just need to approach it with the right expectations.

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Mark Pollard

Founder, webmaster and senior editor of Kung Fu Cinema. Known to occasionally freelance as a film writer specializing in Asian action cinema. Currently living with family in southwestern Michigan.

4 responses to “Review: 'Dogs of Chinatown' (2009)”

  1. Met these awesome guys @ Comicon this year..Contour was awesome…so I'll give this a try!

  2. After the martial arts brilliance of Contour, I'm happy to give anything the Stunt People work on a try. You said it perfectly - the production quality of the SP filmography may be minimal, but their choreography and execution is comparable to the best of HK. DOC at least provides a change of tone, it'll be nice to see some SP action in a slicker context.

  3. It really is disgusting to see an action movie where the actors are unable to string two moves together.

    Clear visuals do a lot more than the "jarring" or gritty look of a shake cam - did that start with Private Ryan - and that was only in the beginning.

    I can shake my own head or cross my eyes if the onscreen action is too calm, entirely unnecessary!

    …"a lot of professionals who are still obsessed with gimmicks employing shaky cams, MTV editing and wirework."

  4. As a footnote to this review, readers can stay up to date on what's happening with DOGS OF CHINATOWN, including screenings and release announcements by going to the film's official blog at http://allacesmedia.com/dogsofchinatown/. The film also has a slick Myspace page at http://www.myspace.com/dogsofchinatown/.

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