This was the big one for Gary Daniels, the opportunity to show that he can carry a movie with a medium-sized budget on his own. Daniels became known among action movie fans with a couple of low-budget flicks in the early 1990s, the type where I always wanted to fast forward to the action scenes (but almost never did). The best thing about them certainly was seeing Daniels and his incredible martial arts skills in action. Fist of the North Star was his first lead role in a larger production, even though the movie still went straight to video. But a 7 Million USD budget, a capable director, and a cult manga template are not the worst conditions to work with, I’d say.
After World War 3, the two factions North Star and Southern Cross compete for the leftovers. Southern Cross leader Shin kills North Star master Ryuken, and establishes a tyrannical rule over the world. Ryuken’s son Kenshiro survives the attack, and becomes a one-man army that thrashes everyone who stands between him and his quest for revenge.
Fist of the North Star was directed by Tony Randel, who was mostly known for making horror movies, such as the sequel to Hellraiser, but not for action movies. Still, his involvement was a full success, and he managed to make the movie look a lot better than it should considering its budget. The sets are put together with great detail to create plenty of run-down and depressive locations.
It looks like the movie was filmed completely indoors, likely also for budget reasons. Randel used painted backgrounds of desert and mountain landscapes, and lots of fog and wind to create the illusion of outside space. Together with a bunch of miniatures of skyscrapers and other large objects, these cost-effective special effects add a charming old-school vibe. At least for me, but I can imagine people with a less benevolent stance may consider it all cheap and outdated.
Randel also excels at staging the action scenes as good as it can get for a direct-to-video production, which is probably due to him also being a professional editor. They’re a joy to watch with long tracking shots and no choppy editing. Daniels presents himself in top form, and delivers all sorts of crazy kicks and punches to his many opponents who usually die an extremely brutal death. If we look at the work Daniels is doing in Fist of the North Star, and also other films like Bloodmoon and Hawk’s Vengeance from that era, it’s clear that he was one of the most talented martial artists ever to enter the movie arena, and it’s unfortunate that he never became as successful as some of his peers.
Despite all its merits, the movie is not a full success. Daniels’ fighting skills and overall physical prowess make him a good choice for the lead character Kenshiro. But I’m afraid to say that acting has never been a strength of his, which may actually be the reason why he never became as successful as his peers. It almost seems that the screenwriters for Fist of the North Star considered this in advance, as he never gets to say more than one sentence in a row, let alone anything meaningful.
Another problem of the film is the flow of the story. Most sequences are disjointed from each other, with the villains showing up at seemingly random moments to wreak havoc on innocent civilians. Same goes for our hero Kenshiro who just wanders around for the first hour, and beats up any baddies he comes across. None of these things kill the movie, it just renders it more of a post-apocalyptic slideshow with a couple of kick-ass fights than a consistent film.
Fist of the North Star is an entertaining mess with a great physical performance by Daniels. It’s not unlike Albert Pyun’s classic Cyborg, a fun B-movie ride through a desolate wasteland, and certainly one of the better low-budget post-nuclear action flicks that came out since Mad Max.