If you want a good action film today, forget finding one at the multiplex. The genre died a slow death during the 1990’s, with traditional action hero fare slowly getting phased out by star vehicles that spend several times more money to deliver several times less action. Thankfully, action heroes found a new home in the straight-to-video market. A few – most notably Jean Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren – have managed to make movies that are better than the ones that made them famous.
Newer stars have managed to rise up in this post-theatrical marketplace as well. One of the best and brightest is Michael Jai White, a gifted actor who has been at it since the 1990’s. He’s worked steadily without ever quite breaking through to the big time but he stays in the game and delivers quality work. Blood And Bone is a solid action-star vehicle for White, showing off his skills in a likeably old-school setting that gives them plenty of room to shine.
The film starts with Isaiah Bone (White) displaying his fighting prowess by laying waste to a gang of shiv-toting thugs in a prison bathroom. A few years later, he emerges from the joint and methodically begins enacting a plan that only he knows. It starts with him entering the Los Angeles street-fighting scene, teaming with mouthy promoter Pinball (Dante Basco) to earn cash and notoriety.
Bone becomes an unbeatable champ on the scene and comes to the attention of James (Eamonn Walker), a mid-level crime boss with a love of underground fighting and a beautiful but heroin-addled wife named Angela (Michelle Belegrin). James starts plotting to put Bone into an underground fight in the wealthy, exclusive circuit presided over by his boss, Franklin McVeigh (Julian Sands). Bone reluctantly joins in because he is drawn to Angela – but this attraction is not what it seems and his true plans become revealed as the big fight draws near.
Blood And Bone is very satisfying action fare because it knows exactly what its audience wants and serves it up with a classic sense of style. Michael Andrews’ script doesn’t offer much in the way of surprises but it knows the beats of the action-star vehicle well and lays them out in a clean, disciplined style. It draws its characters in broad strokes, infuses the proceedings with a bit of heart at the necessary points and delivers plenty of quality set-ups for dazzling fight scenes.
Director Ben Ramsey, perhaps best-known for writing The Big Hit, handles the simple tale well. His visuals are stylish without being showy and he gets solid performances from his actors. White is allowed to carry the film and he does so in a subtle but confident way, underplaying with a Clint Eastwood-like flintiness and allowing his presence to do talking that dialogue wouldn’t be able to achieve. The film also offers a few unusually well-developed roles for women and the actresses do well: Belegrin offers the right mix of weariness as sorrow as the damsel in distress and Nona Gaye shows a strong presence as the tough landlady who circles White with wary interest.
Ramsey also allows a few of his cast members to go for a broader style of performance. Walker gets to chew a bit of scenery in his villainous role but never devolves into a cartoon and Basco delivers a likeable version of the fast-talking sidekick archetype. However, it’s Sands who is the big scene stealer in this category: a scene where he has a verbal duel with Walker is an artful display of cheerfully-unleashed venom.
However, the key weapon in Blood And Bone‘s arsenal is its action and it is handled beautifully on both sides of the camera. Sam Hargrave and Fernando Chien’s fight choreography has a bone-crunching intensity to it and Ramsey wisely keeps the camera at enough of a distance to allow its complexity to unfold before the viewer’s eyes. Thankfully, the temptation for flash-cut editing is avoided and this makes it easier to appreciate for the performers’ hard work. White, a real martial artist, is at the center of most of the fights and his graceful moves are as confident and focused as his charisma.
The careful attention to craft at all phases of the film – and the dedication shown by said craftsmanship – makes Blood And Bone a taut, skillfully-engineered variation on a classic format. White performs with skill and personality, just as he did in the comedically-oriented Black Dynamite, and the level of range he shows between the two films makes one hope that he’ll eventually make it to the big leagues.
Until then, it would be a nice to have a few more films like this. It seems the old-school action film has some life in yet.