‘Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky’

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Adapted from a Japanese manga released in the late 1980s, which was then turned into an anime series, Ngai Choi Lam’s 1991 film, Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky, is gory, goofy greatness. Called the “best comic book adaptation ever created” by Hobo with a Shotgun director Jason Eisener, who provides a brief but zealous introduction to the film on the newly released Blu-ray, this absurdly enjoyable martial arts picture is the definition of over the top.

In the year 2001, Riki-Oh Saiga (Fan Siu Wong) arrives in prison to serve 10 years for manslaughter and assault. Aside from the conviction itself, we know little about Riki, about who he killed and why. He has five bullets lodged in his chest (“souvenirs” he calls them), and in general, he seems to be a seriously durable individual. It’s only through gradual flashbacks that we see his crimes were committed out of vengeance for his girlfriend’s death.

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In prison, Riki is confronted by one jailhouse faction after another, ranging from the notorious Gang of Four to Silly Lung, an extremely obese man who is in solitary because he was so hungry he ate a horse (given his size, one assumes he finished the meal). There is also the gluttonous and brutal assistant warden (Fan Mei Sheng) who, aside from having quite the extensive porno collection, has two hooks in place of his left hand and sports a false eye, which he is frequently removing, and which, of course, contains mints. There’s considerable infighting within the prison walls, and inevitably, the stoically independent Riki finds himself at the center of it all. It doesn’t help that he also discovers a prospering opium industry at the facility, with the product overseen by Warden Sugiyama (Ho Ka Kui), an odd cross between a Blaxploitation pimp and a Blaxploitation gangster, but Asian. Riki promptly sets fire to the plants, for in a roundabout way, his sister died because of the heroin use of others.

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Throughout Riki-Oh, the violence is wild and relentless. It’s comically grotesque (like the performances) and at times shockingly graphic. If nothing else, you have to at least commend Cheng Fung Yin and Cheung Chi Wai for their extraordinary special effect and makeup work. The dialogue is atrocious, ridiculous, and peculiarly incongruent with the film’s country of origin, setting, and time period. One inmate declares another is “hanging himself to death.” “Riki, you’re tops!” proclaims a convict. “Creep, you’re really vexing me,” says another. Then there’s the exchange between a young Ricky and his uncle/mentor, when the elder notes, “Your real name is Rick. But you were as strong as a bull at 7 or 8, so I called you Ricky.” Sure, that makes sense.

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Whatever you call him, Riki is an abnormally superhuman hero. Tough as nails (which he could probably hammer in with his index finger), his punches can hurt even without touching. He can pop the eyes out of someone’s head with just one hit, he can tie up his own severed tendons, and he’s adept at playing the flute, even, apparently, on a leaf. Yet he also has a sentimental side and a robust sense of justice. He is skilled and disciplined, and his defiant presence rallies the other inmates (we forget that they, too, are probably all hardened criminals, but I guess compared to the really bad guys, they can’t be so bad). He’s an inspiration to them all and they, in turn, give him their full support. All of this echoes the repeated refrain of the film—I guess you could call it a theme—that of “family law,” of following a criminal code and avenging the wrongs committed against another. In any event, the whole thing concludes in a final duel that I defy any first time viewer to say they saw coming.

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While Riki-Oh does have a story, in all of its cliché-ridden glory, its primary claim to fame, and really the sole reason to watch the film, is its abundance of action and extreme gore, all presented graphically and, in most cases, hilariously. The violent check-list includes mangled fingers, fists through stomachs, attempted intestine strangulation, the skinning of faces, heads bursting like watermelons, the gamut of disembowelment and disfigurement, and the strategic use of a meat grinder (you can imagine how that goes). From a technical standpoint, the carnage is remarkably well done, with only a few instances of clearly shoddy design. But make no mistake, while comedy may undercut some of this gruesomeness, the film is not for the squeamish. Nor is it for the habitually serious. It’s a ludicrous bloodbath of bombastic action and cheesy humor, with only slight and essentially irrelevant narrative exposition. Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky is what it is, and it makes no attempt to be anything but. And that’s why it’s such fun.


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