America has failed as a society in many ways, and one of them is this: Michael Jai White is not a titanic movie star. There is no reason why Michael Jai White is not a titanic movie star. He can act. He has a calm, still, intimidating presence. He's handsome enough to play the love interest in a Nicki Minaj video. He is ridiculously diesel. And he can fight. MJW can do things in action movies that almost nobody else can do. He can leap into the air and individually kick four different people before he lands. He can make a wet prison-uniform shirt look like a legitimately deadly weapon. He can communicate all the ways he's going to rip you to pieces with his eyes, and then he can do it.
For all his qualifications, though, MJW has only ever gotten the chance to play the lead in a studio movie once, and the result, 1997's Spawn, turned out to be a ridiculous mess for reasons that were not his fault. Nearly 20 years after that travesty, White is still a working actor, but he's spending his energy on Tyler Perry joints and voice work for Black Dynamite, the Adult Swim cartoon spun off from the great, affectionate feature-length blaxploitation pastiche he made in 2009. (MJW also co-wrote the Black Dynamite screenplay. That's another reason to like him.)
And then there are the straight-to-DVD action B-movies; Michael Jai White is one of the kings of straight-to-DVD action B-movies. And if you're the type of person willing to take a chance on something like Undisputed II: Last Man Standing, the years-later sequel where our hero takes over Ving Rhames' imprisoned-boxer role, you will see some things. In certain corners of the internet, White's Undisputed II fights with the British martial artist Scott Adkins are the stuff of legend.
Blood and Bone, from 2009, is so straight-to-DVD that you can practically feel it staring at you from a gas-station convenience-store discount rack. It has cheap camerawork and barely-there character arcs and shooting locations that feel like video-game levels from 2002. Most of its big-money underground fights take place in a parking lot, where people indiscriminately spray fire and a DJ aimlessly spins public-domain beats. Its cast is fascinatingly all-over-the-place: Marvin Gaye's daughter Nona as a saintly foster mother, Dante Basco (Rufio from Hook) as a motormouthed fight promoter, the monstrously huge pro wrestler and kickboxer Bob Sapp as a hired-muscle figher, a pre-Haywire Gina Carano getting to beat some other girl bloody and then slip MJW her number. Its plot is sufficiently dumb that it asks you to believe that an international big-money criminal consortium controls the global street-fighting underground. It's an awesome movie, and I love it.
On the face of it, Blood and Bone is an underground-fighting movie as pure and cliched as they get. A mysterious stranger, fresh out of prison, drifts into town and launches himself, with weird precision, into the pit-fighting underworld. He rips everyone to shreds, and then he takes aim at the mobster who runs the whole world. He befriends the guy, who we all know is the enemy, and he eventually reveals his long-burning vendetta. At the end, he quietly leaves town, bag slung over his shoulder. That's a basic and, on some level, a satisfying story. But Blood and Bone has more fun with it than a straight-to-DVD movie probably should.
Much of the movie's power, of course, comes from White. As the hero, Bone (yeah), he speaks in a husky mutter, using the bare minimum number of words. He never changes his stony facial expression, staring down friends and foes alike. A lot of the power of his performance is in the deliberate, economical way in which he moves, whether he's fighting or not. The early fights are great because they usually end with him throwing one kick or elbow and crumpling some hopeless tough guy. In the very first scene, he avoids a prison-bathroom stabbing, leaving Kimbo Slice whimpering on the ground and delivering an all-time great badass line: "I want you to tell every motherfucker behind these walls that if they get a notion to fuck with me, don't." We never learn much of his backstory, or why he can so effortlessly dismantle anyone. He just is. He's a fully-formed superhero with no real origin story.
The villain is pretty great, too. Eamonn Walker is a smooth, handsome British character actor, a guy you will definitely recognize even if you can't figure out what from. (He's on Chicago Fire now, if that helps.) In the movie, he's James, a poised and elegant crime boss who collects ancient weapons and quotes Genghis Khan and grandstands about how he won't allow profanity in his house. (One of the movie's great pleasures is seeing Bone rattle this guy so much that he starts bellowing cuss words at everyone.) James's big goal is to break into the international street-fighting consortium, a world where black-market crime bosses apparently aren't welcome. (Apparently, it's like any other corporate enterprise, then.) He's trying to shatter a glass ceiling, and in a lot of other movies, he might be a hero. But he also frames innocent men so he can steal their wives and then get those wives hooked on drugs. So when he meets a deeply sad bad-guy fate, you don't feel that sorry for him.
But fighting movies don't live and die based on their characters—the fights matter more than anything else, and the fights are what elevate Blood and Bone to minor-classic status. JJ Perry, the fight choreographer who worked on Haywire and Warrior and Undisputed II, gets a lot of the credit, putting together believable black-and-white contests where Bone and his opponents just destroy each other, where you can feel the kicks as you watch. Director Ben Ramsey keeps the camera steady and avoids too much quick-cutting, giving us unobstructed shots of the crazy athletic shit the actors are doing. The cast comes stacked with actual real-life fighters like Carano and Sapp and Matt Mullins, who has a great final fight against White. And the fights pretty much never stop. The movie clocks in at a brisk 93 minutes, and a healthy percentage of that is just straight-up fighting. The fighting is the heavy, fast-paced, bone-crunch kind we see in Asian movies like Ong-Bak or The Raid way more often than we see in American pictures. As low-budget action movies go, this is just too good to get lost in the direct-to-DVD ranks. It's also a great movie-length argument that Hollywood should get a notion to fuck with Michael Jai White way more often.
Tom Breihan is the senior editor at Stereogum; he's written for Pitchfork, the Village Voice, GQ, Grantland, and the Classical. He lives in Charlottesville, Va. He is tall, and on Twitter.
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.
Previous installments: Man of Tai Chi | Bloodsport | Battle Royale | Total Recall | Django Unchained | El Mariachi | Tombstone | Fearless | Red Dawn| Blue Ruin | The Man From Nowhere | Face/Off | The Chinese Connection | Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning | District B13 | Uncommon Valor | The Heroic Trio | Safe | Mad Max | Ip Man | Big Trouble in Little China | Sonatine | Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol | Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior | Charley Varrick | Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky | Dredd| 13 Assassins | Death Wish 3 | The Legend of Drunken Master