Monday, May 4, 2009

Script Review: Blood And Bone

In keeping with the John Kreng book review, here's a look at the screenplay for an out-and-out action fight film.

Blood and Bone is a upcoming martial arts/fight film, starring Michael Jai White, written by Michael Andrews and directed by Ben Ramsey (who also revised the script). If the film does well, it could become a franchise.

A short plot summary:

After showing us just how damn tough he is in an opening fight scene in jail, ex-con Isaiah Bone finds himself back on the streets. Renting a room from a single woman who looks after abandoned children, Tamara, he proceeds to attend an underground fighting competition. He hooks up with Pinball, one of the fight promotors, who's not doing too well as his fighters all get demolished by the Hammer Man, a steroid-pumped monster owned by Afro-American gangster James. Bone wants to fight Hammer Man, but has to move up through the ranks before he's allowed his shot at the big guy. Which isn't much of a problem, as Bone turns out to be completely invincible.
Once Bone gets in the ring with the Hammer Man, he wastes no time in completely demolishing his opponent.

James takes it all in stride, though, and invites Pinball and Bone to his home. Even when Bone shows too much interest in James' beautiful but drugged-out girlfriend Angela, James keeps his cool with him. And for a reason: James wants to get into an international underground fighting organisation, where fighters battle to the death for the amusement of the extremely rich and expecially powerful, and he wants Bone to be his fighter. Bone is offered Angela as an enticement, and promises to think it over.

Now the plot thickens: it turns out that Bone was in jail with Angela's ex-husband, who was set up for the murder of Bone's twin brother by James. His first action is to take Angela to a rehab center, and once she's clean and sober he's going to help her get her son back (one of the kids living with Tamara). In the meantime, James goes to the Scottish arms dealer McVeigh, his contact man in the world of international underground fighting, and gets him to set up a fight between Bone and the deadliest fighter on the planet, Price. It also turns out that James is the real killer of Bone's brother and responsible for many other atrocities, all carried out at the behest of McVeigh.

Bone has an unpleasant surprise for James, though, when he informs him he won't be fighting for him. James goes mad with rage, but Bone and Pinball take out all of his goons and come for him once he's alone. Bone fights James and overcomes him, and forces him to take him to McVeigh so he can get his revenge. But in order to get to McVeigh, Bone has to go through Price first...

Plot/Structure

What struck me when reading the script is how much it reminded me of Clint Eastwood's Pale Rider. Though it doesn't come across in the above synopsis, for a while the script insinuates that Bone is a dead man come back to life to get revenge (which would explain his invincibility, but on the other hand would make the story far less exciting). The twin brother reveal is a bit hard to believe (the brother is called Jack Preacher, and it's never clear whether that's just a nickname or his given name), but it does pull the film back from the brink of the supernatural.

Plotwise, the film follows a fairly predictable but efficient path. The originality lies primarily in the way the characters are portrayed. Sure, there are clich├ęs (the fate of Roberto, the elderly man who stands up to the criminal gangs in the neighbourhood can be guessed from his first appearance), but there are sufficient surprises as well - plus some neat 'whoa! Cool!!'-moments in the action sequences.

The biggest surprise comes at the beginning of act 3, when Bone refuses to be James' fighter. I had expected him to agree and use this as the way to get to the main boss villain. It also made sense as he obviously knew who he was looking for, and it fit the pattern for 'ring fighting movies'. The twist sort of throws the narrative flow out of whack, but it straightens out soon enough when we see how James and Bone come after one another. There's even a nice twist with Angela's rehab.

Structurally, the film has its classic three acts. The first act builds up the tension around Bone become an underground fighter nicely. After the short prologue, we don't see him fight again until the act 1 climax. But there have been a few other bouts and the introduction of the Hammer Man (who we erroneously surmise to become the big opponent for Bone) ensures that the stakes are present and that the suspense mounts almost constantly.

The only minus is that the final big fight, pitting Price versus Bone, isn't emotionally as powerful as the fight between Bone and James a bit earlier in the film (also the only weapon duel in the film, which makes for a nice change of pace). In the finished film, this may not prove to be a problem if the choreography and fight performances are excellent.


Characters

Bone is an effective protagonist: mysterious, brave, with a dark secret (which isn't revealed completely in the script), an incredible fighter, and someone with a very strong moral centre. No character arc here, but the mystery of character is used instead to keep us engaged and fascinated. And it works. With the right actor (and Michael Jai White is certainly capable of selling this part), the character can really come alive.

The strongest part of the script is the main antagonist, James, though. He's got pretentions of gentility, is refined, cultured, won't use profanity or have it used around him - but he's also a raving psychopath who kills people as soon as looking at them, and in extremely savage ways as well. One very strong scene is where James and his goons go to have dinner with a white lawyer friend. At first, everything is fine and it's a surprise for the reader that James has this warm, human side to him - and suddenly, without any warning, he savagely attacks the man and beats him to death. Worse, when the man's girlfriend tries to intervene, he bites a chunk out of her cheek. It's a truly shocking scene which perfectly illustrates the character's schizoid personality.

James' disintegration when Bone turns the table on him, is expertly done as well: gradually he loses his composure, starting to curse and lashing out at anyone around him.

The female roles (Angela and Tamara) are less developed, but do have a few good scenes and character moments which provide them with more depth. Pinball is the archetypal 'funny sidekick' so prevalent in these pictures, especially for the urban market - but this time the character actually is amusing and sufficiently likeable to earn the fact that he's around for the entire duration of the script.

The one role which I had some problems with is McVeigh. Not that the character is badly written per se, but he's a Glaswegian gangster who made it to international arms dealer. Someone like that HAS to be tougher than hell as the Glasgow crime scene is probably the roughest in the UK. Here though, the character becomes too sophisticated and the epilogue, which has a 'fate worse than death' in store for him, doesn't quite ring true. Also because the men who are intent on doing him harm had all been killed by Bone in the opening scene...

ACTION

As this is a fight film, the description of the action scenes is an important part of the reading experience. Strangely enough, the level of detail differs greatly from scene to scene.

Bone is an extremely effective fighter who often manages to take out an opponent with one single move. In a number of cases, the information you get is limited to this ('Bone takes the man out with a highly effective lethal move'). In a number of other cases, the exact move is described. But in the big fight scenes, detail is lacking, and no progress is described in the fight development. These scenes sometimes also fall back on Shane Black-isms - the final fight is described as the greatest martial arts scene in film history. Really? Better than the finale of Drunken Master 2? This kind of superlative boasting takes you right out of the narrative as a reader. Luckily this won't be a problem for the cinema audience. Still, a bit more storytelling in this moment would not have gone amiss.

Blood and Bone is what it is: an urban martial arts film, tailored to the talents of its lead performer for who this may turn out to be a breakout role. It follows the rules of the genre with conviction, and adds an extra dimension (without transcending the genre) by virtue of its character work. It's a good example of a martial arts script with extra depth and emotional layering.

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