The Real Ultraviolence: In Praise Of Riki-Oh: The Story Of Ricky

If you're old, you might remember a time before Jon Stewart hosted The Daily Show, and instead Sportscenter's own Craig Kilborn sat in his chair. If you're old with bad taste like me, you might remember being deeply annoyed when Stewart took over, mostly because he immediately did away with his predecessor's nightly "5 questions" interview segment. I especially missed the particular piece of video that introduced the segment: a big guy slamming a smaller guy's head between his hands and the smaller guy's head flying to pieces, an explosion of squishy ground beef, a moment shocking and hilarious in its gruesome, sudden violence and in its absolute ignorance as to the way heads work.

As it turns out, that moment comes from the 1991 Hong Kong movie Ricky-Oh: The Story of Ricky, and it's probably not even one of the top 50 most violent moments therein.

Ricky-Oh is easily the most violent action movie I've ever seen, and it might be the most violent movie in any genre; its only real competition is Troma's Z-grade exploitation movies and way-over-the-top horror fare like the first Evil Dead or Peter Jackson's Dead Alive. As with those films, it does such cheap, brutal, baroque things with gore that it immediately becomes a parody of itself, intentional or not. Ricky-Oh has appendages fed through meat grinders. It has bodies skinned alive. It has nails impaling eyeballs and bare hands ripping bellies open. It has a scene where a villain kicks a dog in half. It's really something.

The plot, such as it is, mostly serves as an excuse for all these hallucinatory bloodlettings. Made in 1991 but set in 2001, it imagines a dystopian future where prisons have been privatized and crime bosses, for reasons never explored, have superpowers. Ricky, our hero, is a martial-arts pretty-boy, sent to prison for avenging his dead girlfriend by punching a drug dealer to death. Indeed, he has a superpower of his own: a command of breath control that somehow allows him to punch straight through anyone's chest. This is something we will watch him do many, many times.

This premise, with its inexplicably heightened reality, pretty much allows director Lam Nai-choi to disregard any sense of logic or rules. This is an early-'90s Hong Kong action movie based on a late-'80s Japanese comic book, and it takes full advantage of both forms' ability to go nuts with story. Even beyond the violence, there are all sorts of odd and striking ideas at work here. The villainous, hook-handed assistant warden keeps mints in his glass eye and proudly displays his VHS porn collection in his office. The warden has a fat son in a private-school uniform who licks lollipops and spastically giggles about prisoner torture. One character, we eventually learn, can turn himself into a melt-faced giant. The movie offers an explanation for none of this.

But the fights are the real show here, and they're remarkable partly because Ricky never seems to be in any real danger of losing—when he suffers a cut tendon, he just ties it back together with his teeth. And the fights escalate in ways that quickly defy any notion of sense. In his first big fight, Ricky's opponent seems to admit defeat when he proclaims Ricky's greatness and commits seppuku, stabbing himself in the belly. But it's a ruse: The enemy then pulls out his own entrails and tries to use them to strangle Ricky. It's that kind of vibe.

Ricky-Oh is not, strictly speaking, a good movie. Beyond their unprecedented gore, the fights are clumsily choreographed and stiff, while the acting is laughable even before you factor in the deeply weird translations. Continuity errors abound: For example, we see one character talking shortly after we've seen his jaw punched off. The pre-prison flashback scenes, where Ricky and his not-dead-yet girlfriend are happy together, go way beyond Mentos-commercial levels of forced wholesomeness. It's hard to tell whether Lam was joking with all of this, or whether he was really doing his best to make a badass dystopian action movie. Either way, it more or less killed his career, getting slapped with Hong Kong's version of an X rating (the first time that had ever happened for violence alone) and doing pitiful box-office numbers.

But Ricky-Oh had cult status even before Craig Kilborn adapted the head-crush moment, and its badness is the sort of thing you don't laugh at—you marvel at it. Someone made this. Teams of effects artists sat around debating how to best let intestines ooze out of stomach-holes. A set designer mounted those porn-display shelves in the assistant warden's office. All of this happened. The mere existence of a movie like this is proof that we live in an amazing world.

Netflix Instant doesn't have to feel like a depleted Blockbuster in 1990, where you spend half an hour browsing hopeless straight-to-video thrillers before saying "fuck it" and loading up another Archer. Streaming services can be an absolute treasure trove, particularly if you like action movies, and especially if you like foreign action movies. Every week in this space, we'll highlight a new one.

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