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By James Teitelbaum | February 22, 2009

“Dogs of Chinatown” is a highly stylized and rather promising debut feature from Micah Moore. Moore’s only credits to date are directing, shooting, and editing this film (no writer is credited). “Dogs of Chinatown” is occasionally rough around the edges, but as first features go, I have seen a whole lot worse.

Jack (Eric Jacobus) is a tough guy who finds himself working for the Chinese mafia in their war against some Italian gangsters. Jack is a Caucasian who can easily pass for Italian, so he is a great stealth weapon for the Chinese to use against the Sicilians. After having his a*s kicked by an Italian martial artist, it becomes clear that Jack must learn Asian fighting methods. Boss-man Lao sends Jack to a drunken master, a vodka-swilling sensei who teaches Jack to fight without a weapon. This gin-soaked Yoda also teaches Jack the philosophy of Sun-Tzu (“The Art of War”), and has him reading Machiavelli as well.

Spouting quotes from Sun Tzu, Jack becomes Triad’s Ghost, the unseen assassin. He develops a relationship with Jin (a girl, not sensei’s drink of choice), and of course must save her from certain doom. The problem is that Jin is the boss man’s girl. Ooops. Jin disappears from the film for long stretches so that karate and guns can take over. Jack gets himself into some trouble with the bosses even as he takes care of their problems… and then his bosses become his problem.

We first meet Jack in the film’s opening scene. He is on the verge of committing suicide. We don’t know who he is, where he comes from, or why his is so miserable. We never find out. The man is a shell, nothing but a soulless killing machine with no clear motivations. We never learn one single thing about this man’s history, his priorities, or his motivations. But, being the star white-boy assassin for an amoral gang of criminals is what seems to give him purpose. I am not sure what the message is here.

It might be: “if you’re unhappy in life, get a job as a killer”. Perhaps I am looking too deeply here – this is a shoot-em-up with plenty of fighting, some occasional bits of genuine humor, a few hot girls, and lots of booze.

Micah Moore seems to have focused his resources on hiring a rather large cast. There are a fair number of characters in “Dogs of Chinatown”, and the ones who fight are extremely convincing. Clearly, authentic martial artists were used, and when they battle, lengthy shots at medium distance allow the fighters to display some real chops. As any Bruce Lee fan has realized, the modern penchant for ultra-fast cutting in fight scenes is a cop-out for directors who can’t afford a good fight choreographer, or capable stuntmen. Conversely and unfortunately, Moore’s cast aren’t always professional actors, so as a result some of the performances are a bit stiff (most notably: Lao’s marble-mouthed right-hand man).

Moore gives his film a slick look by tinting the vast majority of his shots with either a deep blue or deep sepia filter. When his color palette reverts to something more natural-looking, it is notable. It is also notable (read: distracting) when he switches between long and very short lenses between cuts in a single scene. But that is a nitpick – Moore seems to have studied his craft before embarking on the making of this film, and I suspect that he’ll produce some quality work within the action/martial arts genre in the future.

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