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Kung fu, rockabilly, zombies in 'Johnny Tao'

by Jean Lukitsh

Adventures of Johnny Tao, a new fantasy martial arts movie aimed at kids recently wrapped production with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles stunt actor Kenn Scott at the helm. KFC contributor Jean Lukitsh made a recent set visit to witness stars Chris Yen and Matt Mullins in action and talk with the crew.

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It’s 1:45 on a Monday morning in Los Angeles and in a dark alley a young Asian woman battles two thugs in electric blue suits. They want the briefcase she carries. As they reach she whirls, swinging the briefcase left and right at their heads. She continues in a single blur of motion, first left and right to their knees, then a high kick to one goon’s head before she drops down into a slide step. Her foot strikes the other goon’s ankle and topples him.

“Cut,” shouts Kenn Scott, director of Adventures of Johnny Tao: Rock Around The Dragon. He looks up from the video monitor and addresses the actors. “Beautiful! Is everyone okay?” Everyone is, or will admit to no injuries. “Let’s do it again.” And they do it again and again, until it’s time to move on to the next scene, and a whole new set of moves.

Scott, a martial artist, stuntman, and actor, who played a Ninja Turtle in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle film series, is living a dream. Johnny Tao is his screenplay, as well as his first time directing a feature film. The Ninja Turtle movies had “incredible market penetration,” he recalls and it was obvious that both parents and kids loved them. Why, he wondered, were most action films marketed to adult audiences? He began to kick around ideas for a story that would appeal to younger martial arts enthusiasts. “I decided to put everything I love into the screenplay: kung fu, rockabilly, zombies!”

In Johnny Tao, the title character (Matthew Twining) finds that his best friend Eddie (Matthew Mullins) has been possessed by an ancient Chinese demon and is creating an army of kung fu-fighting demons to take over the world. With the aid of Mika (Chris Yen), the descendant of a Chinese warrior who once defeated the demon with a magical spear, Johnny discovers that his father's electric guitar contains the spear's power and he battles Eddie for control of it.

Although Johnny Tao is aimed at a young audience, delivering topnotch action is a priority for Scott. To that end, he brought in rising stars Marcus Young (fight coordinator on Elektra and xXx: State of the Union) as action producer and Mike Gunther (Catwoman, Elektra) as stunt coordinator, and gave them free rein to recruit the best stunt crew in the business. “We had a great team,” says Young. “It was like a big budget team.”

“In a low budget project like this, I think you have more creative control and you’re allowed to push the envelop a little further," adds Gunther. "We got to do stunts that we normally don’t get to do on big budget movies, because of the red tape.”

And this is a film with plenty of parts for stuntmen, as bikers and zombies and those sinister blue-clad thugs in the alley. The leading roles, too, were cast with an eye towards real-life ability. As Johnny, Matthew Twining (One Life To Live) brought a gymnastics background to the action, Matt Mullins (Xtreme Martial Arts) has trained and competed extensively in the karate and taekwondo circuit, and Chris Yen (Protege de la Rose Noire, Dragon vs. Vampire) learned kung fu from childhood. As Don Poquette, the film’s producer, points out, “The three main actors are all skilled and do 90% of their own work, which gives the director a tremendous amount of freedom.”

“We tried to create a certain style for each character [in the fight choreography],” explains Young. “Wushu style for Chris - she jumped right into that! And Johnny (Matthew Twining) learned his moves from TV, so he’s more about heart. Matt Mullins has very clean lines, he’s a forms champion. We tried to make him a little grittier (as the demon).”

Chris Yen’s character, Mika, is a mysterious demon hunter who enlists Johnny in her crusade to dispatch the sugar-craving zombies. Yen has had experience working in the Hong Kong film industry, but Johnny Tao marked her first chance to do “wire fu.” Pulling off the demanding wire stunts, used to enhance a few of the jumps and spins in the fight sequences, required precisely timed coordination between the actor and the support crew.

“Marcus Young and J.J. Perry (the assistant stunt coordinator) told me the best way is to ignore the fact that I’m being yanked up in the air by my back and crotch about eight feet or so, execute the movement as naturally and powerfully as possible, then land with grace,” says Yen. “Well, let’s just say it was much easier imagined than done.”

The former wushu medallist stepped into her first leading role with style and poise, earning kudos from her colleagues for the energy she brought to the film. Marcus Young predicts the audience won’t be disappointed. “Chris kind of reminds me of an M1000 - a little firecracker, but when she explodes, she explodes!”

The Adventures of Johnny Tao: Rock Around The Dragon wrapped principal photography in late May. It's now in post-production with a release anticipated early next year. For more information on Johnny Tao visit the official site at www.johnnytao.com (site synopsis contains a spoiler).