Apologies to Sam Jackson, but Michael Jai White is the baddest motherfucker on the planet. No one can rock a fight scene quite like him. He doesn’t need wires or CGI or editing tricks to kick four dudes in the face all at once, he just does it. He's more than just a great martial artist, though. He also has serious acting chops. The man can project gravitas like nobody’s business, and he has great comedic timing (see BLACK DYNAMITE, no seriously, see it). And if you are looking for a purely heroic, fighting for the underdog kind of badass, and who isn´t these days, look no further than 2009 DTV masterpiece, BLOOD AND BONE.
A mysterious stranger named Bone (Michael Jai White) rolls into L.A. like a storm; his mind on a mission. With the help of Pinball (Dante Basco), a small time promoter with a big mouth, he starts working his way up the underground fighting circuit, one pulverized opponent at a time. Or in some cases, several at a time. It’s not money or fame he is after, though. Bone is working his way up the ladder to get to James (Eamonn Walker), a hotheaded crime boss with aspirations of the big leagues. James wants into the Consortium, an organization controlling the multimillion dollar illegal fight racket. He’ll need Bone’s skills to do it. What James doesn’t know is that Bone has a promise to keep, and he's going to take down James piece by piece in order to honor it.
I prefer my action heroes to be flawed, in most circumstances. I like them in the mold of DIE HARD’s John McClane; fallible but determined. They make mistakes, they get scared, they get hurt. Invincible characters just aren’t compelling, generally. It’s hard to invest in a character who does everything right. There are no stakes, no fear –realistic or otherwise—that the character won’t come out on top. Ultimately, they are just boring.
Now, forget all the shit I just said, because it in no way describes Bone. Michael Jai White plays Bone with such confidence, presence, and charisma it doesn’t matter that he outclasses ever single chump in this movie. His unwavering confidence is what makes him captivating. He’s like a precision machine. You want to see what he can do. It’s not just the confidence, though. Bone is also thoughtful, observant, and most importantly, humble. Mixing arrogance with confidence makes someone you want to see fall (or at least get taken down a bit). You root for the quietly self-assured type. That character deserves to win.
It also helps that he is constantly underestimated by his enemies. Now, Michael Jai White is an intimidating guy. He’s big and clearly in great shape. Some of his opponents are mountains, though. And as imposing as Bone is, he’s still only one guy. Part of the joy in this movie is in knowing these cocky bastards have no idea what they are getting themselves into.
The opening scene sets things up perfectly. It starts in prison, with a whole crew of mean ass inmates surrounding Bone when he’s in the bathroom. They taunt him about the unpleasant things they plan to do to his person. Bone reacts like they are a bunch of rambunctious kids running around the living room. He gives them to the count of 5 to get the hell out of there. The half dozen knuckleheads, all with shanks, cannot believe what this guy is saying. They don’t even let him get to five before rushing him. Bone proceeds to absolutely destroy the entire group before they can lay a finger on him. It’s a perfect Sergio Leone style introduction to a character who best not be fucked with.
Another nod to Leone is that Bone is kept mysterious. He’s like the Man With No Name, except, you know, with a name. We learn a small amount of backstory in a flashback (Bone had a twin brother who died, because the world is not awesome enough to contain two Michael Jai Whites), but that’s it. The movie never reveals where he came from, why he was in prison, how he got out, or how he became such an amazing fighter. Combined with his almost inhuman skill, it gives him an almost mystic presence. He’s like a spirit of justice, materializing out of nowhere to right wrongs. Except that spirits of justice don’t hang out in prison playing chess and beating the hell out of gang rapists, so there’s probably nothing supernatural going on.
The movie isn’t all grim and face punchy. There is a nice amount of humor to lighten things up. Dante Basco’s Pinball is introduced at the bottom of the street fighting heap, promoting novelty fighters like a huge brute in curlers going by Mommy Dearest. Pinball is the kind of over the top character that would easily become grating after a few minutes, except that he and MJW play off each other so well. Bone is always looking irritated and slightly embarrassed whenever Pinball is doing his smack talking promotion thing. He breaks his intense, brooding stare at just the right moment to give Pinball a quick and disapproving sideways glance. Bone warms up to him as the movie goes on, and Pinball gets more self-reflective and learns to turn it down a little. Just a little.
Bone also develops a sweet relationship with Tamara (Nona Gaye), who he’s renting a room from. She is just as mysterious as Bone, but in a nurturing way, not an arm snapping way. She looks after a house full of kids who were either abandoned or lost their family. It’s never established that she is officially a foster parent, though, so it’s kind of like she’s an outlaw caregiver. The Nanny With No Name. Although, again, with a name. Everyone has names, I should just leave that one alone.
I should also note that there is a cameo fight staring Gina Carano of HAYWIRE fame. The director had to limit the shared screen time between her and MJW to avoid people going blind from the sheer awesomeness.
Eamonn Walker’s James is a fantastic villain, and the perfect counterpoint to Bone. He’s the definition of arrogance, a man who thinks of himself as more important than those around him. He doesn’t drink, smoke, or swear. He puts on the air of refinement, quoting the Art of War, and Genghis Khan. No matter how hard he tries, though, he cannot escape his own crippling insecurity that deep down, he’s nothing but a lowlife thug. That self-hatred is always seething just below his cool exterior, waiting to explode in violence and cruelty. One second he is talking casually, the next he is running down a prostitute for no reason at all. Even his right hand man is constantly nervous around him, especially when James makes him hold up the raw meat to feed his vicious attack dogs.
There is a amazing scene where James is having a relaxed dinner with a colleague, an oblivious jerk named Daryl. We know he’s a jerk because he has a sweater draped over his shoulders and is going on and on about golf. He gets embarrassed when his girlfriend turns on the stereo and it plays “Dance Hall Days”. James asks “You think the brothers aren’t down with Wang Chung?” and starts to sing along. Daryl and his girlfriend get all excited, like it’s karaoke night, but James’ crew start looking nervous. They know what’s coming. Just before the chorus, James pulls out his sword cane and runs Daryl through. It was a completely psychotic move, but in his defense, the guy would not shut up about golf.
James’ big dream is to leave the streets behind and join The Consortium, a group of super rich, elitist criminals who setup the big fights. It’s just the kind of vaguely ominous title that a bunch of self-aggrandizing assholes would call themselves. You know, like The Syndicate, or The Cabal, or The Trump Organization. Normally these guys wouldn’t have anything to do with the likes of James, but he has an in with one of the members. Franklin (Julian Sands, at his aristocratic, racist best) is willing to vouch for him, if he can come up with a five million dollar wager and a fighter that can stand up against Franklin’s top man.
The climax of the movie is Bone pitted up against Franklin’s fighter, who is unfortunately not named Blood, but Pretty Boy Price (Matt Mullins). Again, there is no doubt who the winner will be, but the fun comes from watching this cocky jackass, who doesn’t even bother to take off his suit jacket before the fight, strut around like he isn’t going to break a sweat. He does break a sweat, along with other body parts. It’s the longest single fight of the movie, and Bone does take a few serious hits, but it’s all about wearing Price down, taking the pride out of his step. The fight is filmed with the same wide angle, long take style as all the others, allowing for a serious appreciation of the choreography and the athleticism.
For Bone, it isn’t about the fight, it’s about completely ruining James. [Spoiler] Just when he has Price pinned, poised to break his arm, Bone glares at James and taps out, forfeiting the match. James’ five million and any chance of getting into the Consortium is gone. Infuriated, he rushes Bone with a katana. Franklin, being a sport, throws Bone a sword, too. But because he is so supremely badass, Bone throws away the sword and just keeps the scabbard. Now at this point, any sane person would have dropped the katana and said “fuck it, I’m done.” James, as we know, is not a sane man. It does not go well for him. Bone is too noble to kill the chump, so he leaves him to an even worse fate. Franklin is not as noble.
It is one of the greatest crimes of cinema that BLOOD AND BONE didn’t get a sequel. The adventures of Bone, going town to town providing justice for the underdog, could easily have become a franchise. Director Ben Ramsey had only done one feature before this (LOVE AND A BULLET), but he showed himself more than capable of creating a lean, focused action movie, and he works well with MJW. But the forces of evil keep us deprived of a BLOOD AND BONE II. And as long as we are talking conspiracy theories, who can explain how this movie, along with the majority of MJW’s other starring features, is only available on DVD, not Blu Ray? That is some bullshit. Why are we being denied hi-def Michael Jai White? We can take it. I blame the Consortium.