Sometimes you have to applaud a movie that brazenly refuses to give a shit about how ridiculous it is. While some movies, even the most extreme, show restraint in some areas, others push every bit of the envelope until it’s so far away as to forget there ever was an envelope at all. Or what an envelope looks like. Or what the word “envelope” even means. That it also happens to be absurd to the point of sublimity just adds to the amazing insanity of it. The film to which I’ve attatched all this hyperbole is none other than the 1991 martial arts gore-fest Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky — the campiest, cheesiest, most violent film I think I’ve ever seen. Is it trying to be taken seriously? Is it a hilarious joke? I still have no idea, but what I do know is that people get their heads punched off. A lot.
Based on a Japanese manga called, Riki-Oh, the film is a Hong Kong production directed by Lam Nai-choi (credited as Simon Lam), a filmmaker often referred to as Hong Kong’s answer to Ed Wood. Upon its release, The Story of Ricky was deemed so violent that it was given a Category III rating, Hong Kong’s version of NC-17, the first time this distinction had been given to a film containing zero sex or eroticism. It flopped hard in its native land but gathered a bit of a cult following elsewhere in the world, helped in no small way by one of the worst English-language dubs you’ve ever heard, adding to Ricky’s hilarity. Indeed, the lines are funny all on their own, but sped up to fit the lip-movement of the original Cantonese results in Ricky’s line of “Rogan’s kung-fu is unorthodox,” making me laugh for about five minutes.
So, the eponymous Story of Ricky is incredibly simple: It’s the far-flung future of 2001, and prisons have become privatized, i.e. not regulated by the government at all. Ricky, a young martial artist (and musician, we’re lead to believe) is incarcerated for having killed someone. The prisoners constantly live in fear not only of the brutal warden and the sadistic assistant warden, but also of running afoul of the gangs that run each of the four quadrants of the prison. Early on, Ricky stands up to the tyranny of these gangs by getting into bloodier and bloodier fights. You see, Ricky has superhuman strength and can punch through people’s bodies and heal his own wounds incredibly quickly. While the assistant warden repeatedly tries to break Ricky’s body and spirit, he finds a poppy field in the prison which the warden grows to sell for opium reason.
Through flashbacks, we also see how Ricky was trained by his uncle, being made to punch through gravestones as they’re hurled at him, and how his girlfriend is killed (via being turned into a mannequin and thrown off a building), which leads to Ricky’s initial crime. Like a video game, Ricky and his pretty useless prisoner friends have to battle through the ranks of bad guys until they can escape. Each of the villains has his own weapon or physical attribute that helps them be scary, I guess; like the big, slobbery fat guy, the guy with all the tattoos, the guy who can crush people’s heads, the guy with the knitting needles, the guy who’s inexplicably played by a woman, the pig-like assistant warden with the hook for a hand, and the dapper warden who can turn into a giant.
Before nearly every fight, Ricky does what I like to call the EPIC SHIRT REMOVAL, in which he once again reveals his super muscular torso and screams. Ricky’s actually kind of insane. At an early point, one of his friends gets killed by a bad guy, so Ricky laments this by walking out into the rain and, I guess, trying to punch and kick the falling water. He’s supposed to be a good guy but he kills the most people in the most violent of ways. For example, one of his early fights is with the tattooed guy and Ricky punches his eye out of its socket. Not to be outdone, though, the tattooed guy uses a dagger to commit seppuku and pulls his own guts out of his abdomen. It’s a psych-out, though, as the guy tries to strangle Ricky with his newly liberated intestines before Ricky finally kills him with a punch through the heart.
Probably the most infamous scenes include the character Zorro, the giant guy with the stupid hair. In his very first screen appearance, he crushes some random guy’s head, which became one of the most popular GIFs in internet history and was used quite often during the Craig Kilborn days of The Daily Show. He claps and a fake guy’s head turns into flying flecks of meat. To my mind, though, the more grotesque scene is when he has his final fight with Ricky. Ricky uppercuts the big guy and his fist goes through the bottom of his chin and out his mouth, effectively tearing his jaw off. Yet he can still talk later. Amazing.
The gore in this is plentiful, but at no point do you mistake it for real. The plaster heads aren’t even sculpted to look like the actors and always have the “Plasticine Sheen,” telling you these are basically Gumby characters getting squished. The amount of gore is like that in Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive (aka Braindead), but while that is clearly meant to be darkly silly, this film, it seems, is always taking itself seriously. I’ve never read the manga on which this was based, but I can’t imagine the drawings are any less realistic than the effects used in the film.
Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky is a glorious mixture of over-the-top violence, horribly gushy effects, beyond earnest acting, and sloppily-dubbed dialogue. I defy anyone to watch this movie for five minutes without erupting into howls of derisive laughter. Go on! I defy you!