Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Nov 2nd 2009
Legends of the Dark King: A Fist of the North Star Story
A group of skinny, pleasant old men trek through a postapocalyptic wasteland carrying a load of milk to starving infants. Hmm. Victims perchance? Sure enough, they soon run afoul of a fleet of mowhawked, pierced thugs on souped-up Mad Max-mobiles. The Mad Max-mobiles in turn run afoul of a big lug in a flappy cape and face-obscuring hood. Hmm. Mysterious badass perchance? Enter Raoh, master of the Divine Fist of the North Star, an unbeatable martial art based on attacks to pressure points. Hulking Raoh and his underlings Reina and Souga are on a mission to save humanity—by subjugating it. Oblivious to the illogic of saving people by massacring them in droves, the three stampede across the nuke-scorched earth, gathering allies and crushing opponents, all while hurtling towards a confrontation with Raoh's younger brother Kenshiro.
For those unfamiliar with the franchise, here's a crash-course in Fist of the North Star-ology: In a post-nuclear wasteland a populace of quivering victims is terrorized by two-story-tall villains out to have their way with the women of the world (a coupling the logistics of which you're better off not considering). The two-story-tall villains, secure in their physical superiority (they are two stories tall after all) brace a smaller but more skilled fighter, who subsequently ruptures their skulls like ripe tomatoes. That's Fist in a nutshell. Dark Kings, as a spin-off, deviates a little—largely by transferring skull-rupturing duties from righteous Kenshiro to his less scrupulous elder brother Raoh—but stays well within the meatheaded confines of the franchise at large.
Which is to say that Dark Kings is a monument to testosterone-addled stupidity. It's no coincidence that Raoh's fists are each twice the size of his head. A typical episode begins with the introduction of a new opponent/potential ally, proceeds through Raoh making a speech to his fists (“this fist will be the one to rule the Heavens!”) and ends with him punching some poor schmuck in half. And the atypical episodes are even worse. Episode two has Raoh fighting a horse—yes, a horse—which is in turn fighting a pair of tigers. To protect a wounded foal. Awesome! The whole sorry mess ends with the horse submitting to Raoh's manliness and summoning its thousand horse-comrades to aid him in his battle for unification. The idiocy of it boggles the mind. And it isn't the last time the mind gets idiocy-boggled. Not by a long shot.
Take the dialogue for example. It's a series-wide blight, full of brilliant aphorisms like “men know only to fight” and “as men are intent on staying the course of their rule, women are intent of following through with their love.” Take the fights, which aren't only silly, but also so monumentally one-sided that they're boring. Raoh will simply wave his fists and fleets of punks literally explode into clouds of gore. Yawn. Take the series' faith in the reformative power of raw force and its conviction that the citizens' only hope for a better life lies in the arrival of a savior. Not laws, not social organization, not responsible leaders and effective food production and clean water—no, a savior, as in one heavily-muscled guy out to save the poor, dumb, helpless, thank-you-very-much-for-the-vote-of-confidence masses by splattering other heavily-muscled (but evil!) guys with his iron fists. Brilliant. So that's how we achieve peace in the Middle East and feed all those starving kids in Africa. This is gory bottom-feeder entertainment with the IQ of a slimy and not particularly gifted mud puddle. The only reason to watch it, aside maybe from Mystery Science Theater 3000-styled mockery, is for the exploding punks, and then only if you can stomach the dime-store budget.
Dime-store budgeting is also something of a tradition in the Fist of the North Star franchise. And Dark Kings is nothing if not respectful of tradition. All of Fist's signatures make an appearance: ridiculously muscled men, dusty wind-blown ruins, and, of course, highly variable body proportions. Raoh's fists visibly fluctuate in size, opponents swell up when fighting, and in one notable scene, the hooves of Raoh's horse grow until large enough to crush two men at once. By my estimation that would make his horse the approximate size of a Brontosaurus. In fine Fist form, the fights are hilariously cheap, consisting of a standing exchange of blows requiring a minimum of actual animation and ending inevitably in a gout of featureless gore. Nonviolent sequences fare even worse. Clumsy animation reduces a purportedly sexy dance to a series of neurotic twitches, a herd of baddies stampede en masse as if nailed to the same plank of plywood, and all of the characters emote like emotionally retarded statues.
To be fair, that cheapness is exactly what fans of the franchise want, and there's no denying that that score's electric assault on the senses, in conjunction with said visuals, jars loose the occasional thrill. The series' mix of guitar riffs and orchestral posturing is approximately as subtle as an Eddie Murphy stand-up routine, but it's also perfectly effective, particularly during battle sequences.
And to be even fairer, Dark Kings isn't without its other (admittedly minor) positive qualities. The latter half blurs the line between villain and hero in marginally interesting ways, and the gradual introduction of characters and plot developments from Fist of the North Star proper has an undeniably felicitous effect. Not that Fist is that much better—taken as a whole it's possibly worse—but its age and influence gives its plot a certain resonance, and its characters are at least marginally sympathetic. Plus, when your lead character is a monosyllabic slab of kung-fu-trained beef and his underlings haven't the personality between them of half a Muppet, any move away from the main cast is a good one. And when your plot is basically Behind the Music with kung-fu fightin' kings instead of coked-up rock stars, any move away from it, too, is a welcome one.
So is it the worst series ever made? Probably not. Fist for one has it beat in both visual shoddiness and sheer epic crap factor. But it's close. Dark Kings is one of the few, the proud, the genuinely awful. Don't take that wrong; in an era of aggressive mediocrity, to say that something is actively, nay painfully bad is actually a sort of backhanded compliment. At the very least when you finish you'll remember it, if only in the way that, even with memories suppressed, torture victims still remember being tortured.
No dub is included, and the only extra of note is a behind-the-scenes video that is, appropriately enough, excruciatingly bad.
Overall (sub) : F+
Story : F
Animation : D
Art : C
Music : B-
+ Lots of gore; decent score; unintentional laughs.
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