Paul Rapovski is one of those rare creatures: a Western martial arts expert who has made a living in the ultra-competitive world of Hong Kong cinema. He’s worked with Jackie Chan on ‘Thunderbolt’ and Jet Li, not only in ‘My Father is a Hero’, but also giving an exceptionally villainous performance in ‘Hitman’, where he runs Li closer than Mel Gibson managed in ‘Lethal Weapon 4’. In addition to this, he was a fight coordinator on John Woo’s television series ‘Once a Thief’, while outside the industry, he speaks 5 languages and has an honours degree from the University of Toronto.
But let’s start at the beginning: Paul took up martial arts at age ten: his mentor, Stephen Law, had the same Wing Chun teacher as a certain Bruce Lee, and encouraged him to go to Hong Kong to learn more. This Paul eventually did, moving there in 1992, both to improve his martial arts skills, and to try and break through into cinema.
While he added Choy Le Fat to his repertoire, and showed a particular aptitude for stick fighting, becoming World Heavyweight Full Contact champion in 1996, it was not all plain sailing. Despite having arranged some roles before going out to Hong Kong, they fell through, as things so often do in the film business: “When I arrived, eager to start filming, the movie was constantly being postponed until they finally called it quits. It was really disappointing.”
However, things turned round shortly afterwards when he met Carter Wong in a gym. “He knew of my teacher in Canada and gave me fight scenes in his upcoming film, as well as two more of his projects. This really encouraged me at that time, and I began to train harder and learn more about the culture so as to better my chances for future films.” Though he’s now returned from Hong Kong for the moment, Paul looks back with obvious warmth on his time there: “I worked with so many great people and stars, each one gave me something that propelled me forward and instilled hope. I gained something from every project I worked on, not only fond memories, but personal achievement and growth.”
One of those people was David Wu, editor on many of John Woo’s films, and a director, actor and scriptwriter (‘Bride With White Hair’) in his own right. “The reason I like working with Paul is that he is a fast thinker. Sometimes it’s necessary to think quickly, especially with regard to script changes, or action scene changes, or set changes.” This is perhaps the main difference between Hong Kong and Hollywood; as Paul puts it, “American films tend to rely on more formulas and less inspiration. Hong Kong films have a unique high energy, fast paced feel about them. Most action is made up on the day of shooting; only the most complicated shots are worked out in advance.”
As a result of his first-hand experience, he can also help nail another myth about Hong Kong action cinema, namely, that each film is built on the shattered bodies of stunt-men: “They rarely ask you to do something that they themselves wouldn’t perform. They’re extremely safety conscious, regardless of the stunt.” He’s only ever received superficial injuries, yet admits that on occasion he has looked back and questioned his own sanity. David Wu agrees, saying: “Paul has no problems crossing the line of safety to make the scenes look more realistic”. Though the hardest thing Rapovski has been asked to do is not a stunt or a fight – it was a love scene: “It just wasn’t in the character to be that way so I convinced them to revise the script!”
Now based back in Toronto, Rapovski continues to be busy. “We finished shooting ‘Millennium Queen’ about a week ago; I play rebel leader Joad, opposite Julie Strain and Jeff Wincott.” Indeed, this project, which saw him both acting and coordinating all the action, has already made an impression on the producers; barely was it completed when the producers were demanding a sequel. What else does he have lined up? “There are so many things on the table, both for the short- and long-term, it’s hard to say which will surface first. Some Asian action film shooting is scheduled for Toronto, but the script is being re-written, so we are still waiting.” Though Rapovski prefers to keep quiet about his personal goals until he has accomplished them, at some point he’d like to get involved in the production side, as well as acting.
In one of the most cut-throat industries around, Paul seems so far to have retained both his inner peace and dignity. If hard work, honesty and genuine respect for the martial arts are worth anything then, whether it’s at home or elsewhere in the world, his future success in the film business would appear to be assured.
In the mid-60’s, Bond was big around the world, but in the States, there was still one problem: he was British. Wouldn’t it be better if he were a square-jawed, red-blooded, all-American kind of guy? Step forward the Conde Nast publishing group, who decided to resurrect Nick Carter, a name which had been a mainstay of pulp fiction since before the turn of the century. Back then, it was as a master of disguise that he made his name; now, he was needed to fight harder than 007 and use cooler gadgets, as well as shag more frequently.
He became Nicholas Carter, N3: top agent, holding a Killmaster rating, of the super-secretive AXE [a surprising nod to the super-secretive NSA, formed in 1952, whose mere charter remains classified even today]. His mission, should he choose to accept it – he inevitably did – was to fight for truth, justice and the American way, in a variety of exotic locations, while enjoying the company of a broad selection of large-breasted women.
To out-007 Ian Fleming, who did a scant dozen Bond books, Conde Nast employed an entire rota of authors (including some well-known names among crime writers), in order to satisfy the public’s lust for spy fiction. This roster approach means severe variation in style, ranging from first-person hard-boiled to third-person soft-focus, yet the audience didn’t seem to mind: as early as the end of 1976, the publishers were trumpeting “Over 20,000,000 Nick Carter books in print”, which is impressive if true. Admittedly, between 1964’s ‘Checkmate in Rio’, and ‘Tunnel For Traitors’ in 1986, Conde Nast published over two hundred and fifty in all, at a rate of roughly a dozen per year. This huge volume of output helps explain the sales figures, though it’s still highly respectable even on a per-novel average.
I stumbled across my first on holiday, an impressionable youth browsing a used bookshop in a North of Scotland coastal town. Since then, I’ve read the best part of a hundred; almost all, like the first, acquired second-hand – as with Shaun Hutson novels, it’s an unexplained mystery of the universe how they rarely seem to appear anywhere else. From Malaga to Vienna to Aberdeen, I’ve bought ‘em on sight: the vast majority unashamed pot-boilers, and just as unashamedly entertaining, literary candy-floss with no pretensions to gravitas, possessing lurid covers perhaps surpassed only by James Hadley Chase books. And while some were reprinted for years after their original appearance, others were more topical, such as N3 tracking down the man behind the bombing of the Beirut Marine compound.
Various attempts have been made to film Carter’s exploits, all the way back to ‘Nick Carter, le Roi des Détectives’ in 1908. At various times, Italians, Czechs and Americans (most notably with Walter Pidgeon playing ‘Nick Carter – Master Detective’) had a shot, but never quite realised the potential, despite the growing gap in the market as James Bond softened from the hard psycho-bastard of the early films. Certainly, most of the Carter oeuvre, especially in the 60’s, would have been too violent and way too sexy for a direct translation. However, as the years wore on, they ceased to be quite so extreme – or, rather, while the books remained steadfastly tough and ruthless, the mainstream caught up with and bypassed them.
In the end, this may have been their downfall: just as nudist camp films and H.G.Lewis’s splatter movies lost their audience when Hollywood woke up to the appeal of exploitation, so the factors which allowed Nick to shift titles by the tens of millions in his prime were slowly metabolized into popular culture. You want sex and violence, they’re now available from every bookshop, without the need to wrap them up as a spy thriller.
It may be hard to envisage a time when Variety could make the statement at the top of this page with a perfectly straight face, but Nick Carter has bounced back before from obscurity, and I wouldn’t bet against a 21st century re-incarnation. Till then, he may be gone, but in TC-Land, he is not forgotten.
The many faces of Nick Carter
The novels may not have changed, but the covers have: starting at the bottom right and going clockwise, we move from 1968’s The Mind Poisoners through to The Executioners, published in 1981.
If one series sums up the TC ethos better than any other, it is James Bond: the opening chords send a tremor of anticipation down the spine, and no man can put on a white tuxedo without uttering those immortal lines, “The name’s Bond…James Bond.” 007 is the epitome of cool, the archetypal Brit – despite being played by an Australian and an Irishman, as well as a Scot and an Englishman – and is the only action hero we can offer against McClane, Ripley, Riggs and the other American franchises. It’s impressive that a series which started before I was born is still going from strength to strength, probably because they have a chameleon-like ability to change with the times, discarding the novels and taking on board the contemporary climate with regard to villains. The Russians were the obvious candidates, but refreshingly, it’s usually rogue elements rather than officially sanctioned evil. We’ve also had mad scientists, drug-dealers, renegade agents and media moguls, depending on current mores.
One friend of mine uses “Who was better, Connery or Moore?” as a pick-up line, with excellent results, because everyone knows Bond, and has an opinion. Speaking of opinions, I ploughed through ‘em all over the past couple of months, and what follows are mine. It was an interesting exercise – you could do the same with ITV’s recent series of them, though the views here are not based on the hacked versions they show. It gives a good feel for the way the series has evolved, but they still blur into one another: which ones was Jaws in, and what film had 007 driving on two wheels down a narrow alley? I won’t promise to answer these burning questions but, pausing only to pull an aqualung from the pocket of my immaculately tailored suit, let’s plunge in…
Dr. No (Terence Young) – A hundred million years ago, mankind’s nearest relative was only vaguely a mammal. And so it is with ‘Dr.No’, a Bond movie with legs, arms, and a head, but not much else. No gadgets beyond a Geiger counter, and the action is limited to Bond turning a valve and running away. Even the classic opening titles are little more than some rotoscoped dancers. On the plus side, Ursula Andress rising from the ocean sets a standard that few have matched, and Connery has a casual approach to killing which was slowly diluted in subsequent efforts. It’s surprisingly undated: even after 35 years, it’s tense and effective. A good movie, thus – just Bond in name only… B-
From Russia With Love (Terence Young) – The second film is perhaps the best illustration of how closely early Bond movies followed the books: it’s chock-full of incidents, characters and scenes taken directly from Fleming’s novel. This may be the most politically incorrect of the Bond films, with Connery screwing his way to a Soviet cypher machine, together with Lotte Lenya as lesbo-villainess Rosa Klebb, and a completely gratuitous cat-fight. This is a very prosaic movie, with a plot which is highly plausible, at least by Bond standards, capturing the cloak-and-dagger spirit of the Cold War well. It never quite gels, however, despite an abundance of marvellous set-pieces and characters, while the pacing of the climax is all wrong, with a tacked-on coda that doesn’t fit. C-
Goldfinger (Guy Hamilton) – Finally, the whole formula came together: action, baddies, babes, and a really cool car, as well as a contender for the best theme ever [although producer Saltzman called it “that fucking song”]. Even the Bondisms, previously only played with, come into full flower, and Shirley Eaton’s death, covered in gold paint, is one of the canonical images of 60’s cinema. Olympic medallist Sakata is a great evil henchmen, as the bowler-hatted Oddjob, while Q, the longest surviving character, turns up with Bond’s Aston-Martin, the dream car of every male of a certain age. Exemplifying the style running through the movie: check out the number Goldfinger’s bomb is showing when it gets defused. That, my friends, is the stuff of legend. A-
Thunderball (Terence Young) – Things regressed somewhat for Bond #4, in what now seems like a bloated exercise in excess. Remade as unofficial Bond film ‘Never Say Never Again’, by then Connery had a better hand on the character; if you’ve seen that, much of the original will seem lame. The whole “stolen nuclear weapons” scenario has been done to death since (see ‘Broken Arrow’ and ‘The Peacemaker’ for recent examples), and the lengthy underwater sequences may have been innovative at the time, but will now have you reaching for the fast-forward button. At 140 minutes, it was the longest Bond movie to that date, and it certainly seems so. D
You Only Live Twice (Lewis Gilbert) – As any fan of ‘Trainspotting’ will know, this was written by Roald Dahl. Not that it’s obvious, for the star here is really the monumental volcano set which is Blofeld’s lair. The Japanese locations are nice, but the attempts to evoke anything beyond the shallowest culture misfire, and Connery’s attempts to pass as Japanese are ludicrous. However, we get to see another classic Bond item: autogyro Little Nellie, and Donald Pleasence makes a fine Blofeld, though the other supporting characters are pretty forgettable. It’s the first Bond film to really go for a large-scale climax, with extras scurrying round like ants on a particularly incendiary ant-hill, and begins the trend towards an ever-increasing spiral of spectacle. C
The witty one-liner has long been a staple of Bond films – but it’s not just 007 who gets to deliver them. Here are ten of the best non-Bonds:
“I think he’s attempting re-entry…” – Q, Moonraker
“Do, Mr.Bond? I don’t expect you to do anything – I expect you to die!”– Auric Goldfinger. Goldfinger
“Jealous husbands. Outraged chefs. Humiliated tailors – the list is endless!”– M enumerates Bond’s enemies, The Man With the Golden Gun
“Look after Mr.Bond. See that some harm comes to him”– Hugo Drax, Moonraker
“What’s the matter, sailor: never see a major taking a shower before?”– Sub commander, The Spy Who Loved Me. The major is Barbara Bach.
“Once again, the pleasure was all yours”– A somewhat peeved Xenia Onatopp, Goldeneye
“He disagreed with something that ate him”– Note on shark-chewed body of Felix Leiter, Licence to Kill
“Ooh! The bubbles tickle my…Tchaikovsky!”– Pola Ivanova discovers the joys of jacuzzis, View to a Kill
“Forgive me, father, for have I sinned…”“That’s putting it mildly, 007!”– Q, For Your Eyes Only
“You always were a cunning linguist, James” – Miss Moneypenny, Tomorrow Never Dies
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (Peter Hunt) – Despite being a relative box-office failure, OHMSS has since acquired a good rep among Bond fans. In some ways, you can see why, not least for the ending which is astonishingly downbeat and helps explains both failure and rep. The major problem remains Lazenby, who sounds the part but looks more like Roy Castle and is given an appalling dress sense, largely consisting of hideous polo-necks. You can sense the script-writers were coming up with scenes for Connery and I can’t help wondering what he’d have made of it. Against this, it’s probably the best line-up of Bond girls ever (Diana Rigg, Joanna Lumley, Anoushka Hempel), the ski stunts are great, and it’s perhaps the last to be an accurate translation of the book. C
Diamonds Are Forever (Guy Hamilton) – Poor George: not only dumped as Bond, they bring back the guy he replaced. What a sickener. His loss is our gain, as the makers respond with an upbeat cracker, packed with classic Bond-isms, thrills and excess – save, oddly, on the babe front, where 007 sticks to Jill St. John as Tiffany Case. Charles Gray gets promoted to Stroker of the White Persian, while Connery rampages around in pursuit, trashing everything from lifts to oil-rigs like a tuxedoed Godzilla. One plus is entertaining, but completely superfluous, scenes such as Tiffany’s languorous pick-up of Bond’s diamonds – add the vicious double acts of femmes fatales Bambi & Thumper, and homosexual hitmen Mr.Wint & Mr.Kidd, and you’ve got a very solid product. Look out for Cassandra Peterson, pre-Elvira and fame, as a showgirl. B
Live and Let Die (Guy Hamilton) – For the first time, a rock band and not a lounge singer did the theme, with Paul McCartney delivering a classic. Shame, then, that the film falls short; not because of Moore, who does the one-liners very well, it’s just that the villains are so inept as to be totally non-threatening. This is summed up by Rosie Carver, of the ‘Dr.Who assistant’ school (honours in “screaming” & “running away”); with allies like her and the San Monique police, who can’t drive in a straight line, what hope for Yaphet Kotto? The Tarot/voodoo backdrop is nice, and there are moments for the Bond Hall of Fame, the speedboat chase and the New Orleans “funerals” in particular. Yet these don’t gel into anything to equal the theme song. C-
The Man with the Golden Gun (Guy Hamilton) – This is really amazingly lacklustre: it takes Bond 70 minutes to get a shag, and in terms of action, virtually all you get is the odd fist-fight and two soporific chases. It seems very cheap (Christopher Lee, good as assassin Scaramanga, can muster precisely two henchmen – actually closer to one-and-a-half) and stretched; everything takes three times as long as it should. Britt Ekland is another uber-bimbo, perpetually screwing up and needing rescue, while Moore shambles from one scene to another. Despite obvious theft from the previous year’s ‘Enter the Dragon’ – the Far East setting, an evil millionaire and a hall-of-mirrors climax – two kung-fu schoolgirls and a solitary decent car stunt fall well short of what’s required for even minimal entertainment. D-
The Spy Who Loved Me (Lewis Gilbert) – Opens with one of the best pre-credit sequences (the Union Jack parachute ski-jump), albeit spoiled by truly dreadful back projection. This sets the tone for the whole film, which is grand, providing you don’t look at it too closely – the plot bears a strong resemblance to lace; lightweight and full of holes. Still, there’s good use of locations, and Jaws is one of the all-time evil sidekicks, to go alongside one of the all-time cars, the Lotus Esprit. Barbara Bach, as Soviet agent Triple X, makes a better assistant to Bond than an adversary, and things perk up notably after the first act, which largely consists of pottering round in pursuit of a microfilm. C
Moonraker (Lewis Gilbert) – The brassy Bassey theme falls well short of ‘Goldfinger’, and this is a very disappointing entry in general. The plot is no more than an excuse for product placement and exotic travel: Bond sees a packing case with a place-name on it, and hey, goes there. Good job he didn’t find a box of Mars bars. Drax may be the dumbest villain ever, revealing his plans to all and sundry at the drop of a megalomaniacal hat. There are numbing elements of slapstick, notably a chase through Venice, which don’t work, and border on parody, though there is one decent in-joke involving ‘Close Encounters’ and a pleasant amount of glass-smashing. The space sequences at the climax are pretty good, but long before you get there, you’ll have ceased to care very much. Even the return of Jaws is largely botched. D-
Never Say Never Again (Irvin Kershner) – let’s look at some facts:
Written by the same guys who wrote Thunderball
Starring the original James Bond
Standard characters from all the James Bond films
Same evil villain, determined to take over the world (or destroy it)
Cool gadgetry and chase scenes
Gorgeous Evil Psycho Nympho women
Gorgeous Good Nympho women
This is a James Bond film. Why is it so hard to understand? Nobody argues over the ‘Alien’, ‘Terminator’ or ‘Hellraiser’ series, do they? No one cares who marketed, produced, directed, or wrote them. Nobody disagrees that they are what they are. The same applies here, if not more so, since the writing team is the same. On it’s own, I enjoyed this Bond film without comparison to Thunderball, on which it is based. Sean Connery is always cool as 007. Barbara Carrera was an excellent Psycho Nympho. I have always enjoyed Klaus Maria Brandauer and his penchant for needing facial close-ups in all his films (see ‘Out of Africa’ for the best ones). And was I the only one who noticed a very young Timothy Dalton in the casino? Kim Basinger, with her classic beauty and those lips (I’m not a lesbian, much to my one true love’s chagrin, but I appreciate quality and am filthy jealous of Kim’s mouth), was a bit downplayed as the Bond girl. My favorite scene is the game of Domination – a holographic, electrifying game of Risk, played for tons of money and a dance with Kim. I thought that was terribly romantic. Simply put, very James Bond-ish. Watching this and every other James Bond film, I know one thing; I enjoy them, I am entertained by them and in my mind, they are all one thing – James Bond films. [she ducks!] Chris Fata
For Your Eyes Only (John Glen) – A new director, former editor Glen, breathes much needed new life into the series, with Moore clearly enjoying himself in the role, more restraint on the comedy, and the best collection of car-chases in any Bond movie. The task is to recover a device from a sunken spy-ship before the Russian get it, which brings Bond alongside Greek smuggler Topol. The subplot involving a war against another bunch of gangsters may be safely ignored and, while the underwater stuff does slow down the movie notably, Michael Gothard (the Inquisitor from ‘The Devils’) is a worthy villain and the finale relies on a refreshing amount of stealth and guile, rather than the traditional stand-by, the enormous gun-battle. Add in Janet Brown and John Wells as Maggie T and Dennis, and you’ve got a good return to form. B
Octopussy (John Glen) – Chewing scenery as he goes, Steven Berkoff is the archetypal madman, plotting intricate schemes involving fake Faberge eggs, a travelling circus and a nuclear bomb; fortunately, he’s largely in the background. The morally ambivalent Maud Adams is the only woman to appear in the series as two different characters (see also Joe Don Baker), and India is used nicely, Vijay Amritraj turning in a winning performance as 007’s assistant – contrast Moneypenny replacement, Penelope Smallbone, so dreadful she vanished hereafter. The whole film is defiantly light-hearted (check out Bond’s flip-top croc), and never quite topples into the ridiculous, despite Berkoff’s ham-handed efforts to make it. There’s a particularly enthralling sequence on top of a train careering through the German countryside, and Bond raises saving the world to a closer edge than ever before. Makes you feel somewhat nostalgic for a bygone era when digital watches were cutting-edge and cool… B-
A View to a Kill (John Glen) – Compared to Berkoff, Christopher Walken shows how the psychotic villain should be done, with a short fuse and a manner like a coiled spring which is a joy to watch. Pairing him with Grace Jones is bizarre yet highly effective, at least while Jones keeps her mouth shut (her strength is looking mean, not dialogue). Patrick MacNee fills out the cast as Bond moves from a computer chip riddle to a plot which threatens to create Silicon Pond. Surprisingly gadget-quiet, the final chunk is an escalating series of stunts and explosions, in which the Golden Gate bridge plays a significant part. Oh, and the credits, with a women unzipping her top to reveal the 007 logo on her chest in fluorescent paint, are perhaps Maurice Binder’s finest. C+
Gross ($m) U.S.
Gross ($m) World
From Russia With Love
You Only Live Twice
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
Diamonds are Forever
Live and Let Die
The Man with the Golden Gun
Spy Who Loved Me
For Your Eyes Only
Never Say Never Again
A View to a Kill
The Living Daylights
Licence to Kill
Tomorrow Never Dies
The Living Daylights (John Glen) – By Bond standards, the plot here is terribly complex, with double- and triple-crosses galore, as a Soviet defector turns out to be not quite what he seems. Nor is anyone else, really. If you can keep up with this, you’ll get to see some superb stunts, good vehicular mayhem, and an impressive evil henchman, whose raid on the safe house where the defector is being held is very impressive. The new Miss Moneypenny sucks, however, and after a bright start Bond babe Maryam D’Abo become bland. It still builds to another wonderful finale with some eye-popping airplane stuntwork, which sees 007 deep in Russian-held Afghanistan; it’s a sign of the times that the “freedom fighters” who assist him, would probably now be Taleban villains… B-
Licence to Kill (John Glen) – The approach here is radically different to other Bond films, with a viciousness from both heroes and villains which borders on the unpleasant. 007 enters ‘Death Wish’ mode – a kinder, gentler Bond this is not – after his friend Felix Leiter undergoes a wedding day shark-putation, at the hands of the ferociously impressive Roberto Davi. Bond is drummed out of the Secret Service, but this facet is largely ignored, Q still supplies him with technology, and indeed, gets significantly more to do than his usual “Pay attention, double-oh seven” spiel. Bond’s twin assistants probably should have been combined into one, though Davi’s drug-smuggling method (dissolved in petrol) does make for gratifyingly impressive explosions. The style fits Dalton well, and it’s a shame he never got to develop it further. C+
Goldeneye (Martin Campbell) – Given neither director nor star had 007 experience, this is spectacularly good, with more memorable characters than the previous four combined: Judi Dench, Sean Bean, Famke Janssen (gunning down colleagues with orgasmic delight), Robbie Coltrane & Alan Cumming all provide valuable support to Brosnan in his first outing. Thanks to wonderful set-pieces at start and end, plus the tank chase in the middle, the pacing is excellent, and it’s never dull. The plot doesn’t stand close inspection but in Bond film, it is not a major issue; it’s been ages since they bothered about such things. And while Eric Serra’s score is another weak point, the opening song is up with the best. All told, the best debut since Connery. B
Tomorrow Never Dies (Roger Spottiswoode) – Some people prefer this to ‘Goldeneye’, which surprises me because, after the credits, I can see no way in which it is superior. The plot is a throwback of twenty years, with Jonathan Pryce a cackling megalomaniac intent on turning the world into his puppet, for reasons that are never explained beyond the obvious one that he’s a loony. Complete with a secret laboratory atop his headquarters, anyone who’s seen ‘Austin Powers’ will be unable to take him seriously. And what was going on with Teri Hatcher? It’s giving nothing away to say that she dies very early on: oddly, while her corpse lies on the bed for a lengthy scene, we never get to see its face – this gives credence to the rumour that Hatcher was fired and hurriedly written out. The (BMW! BMW!) product placement grates horribly, and director Roger Spottiswoode (‘Stop – Or My Mom Will Shoot’) seems to have no idea what he’s doing, it feels as if it was all made up as they went along. Even Michelle Yeoh is badly misused: they wouldn’t let her do her own stunts, which is like making Pavarotti mime. I was neither shaken nor stirred by this sad excuse of a half-baked Bond film. D
Imagine a ball travelling at over 300 km/h, and capable of shattering bullet-proof glass. Imagine facing it, with no real protection apart from a helmet. Imagine, in fact, trying to catch this ball in a wicker basket, and throw it back where it came from. Welcome to the world of jai-alai, the world’s fastest ball game.
And not just the fastest – it may be one of the oldest too, as jai-alai’s origins certainly date back to Greek times (where it was called ‘pilos’) and possibly even earlier. However, it was the Basques, inhabitants of the border region between France and Spain, who took the basics of a game played against church walls, and developed it into something best described as ‘squash with attitude’. The game has since been taken around the world to wherever Basques live, particularly Central America and South East Asia.
Initially played with bare hands, the original has evolved into many different versions, of which jai-alai is the most merciless. The defining moment in jai-alai’s history was in 1857, when a 14-year old French Basque boy, rejoicing in the name of Gantchiki Dithurbide, couldn’t afford the glove with which the game was played at the time. Instead, he borrowed a basket from his mother’s kitchen and, just like William Webb Ellis, discovered a whole new ballgame. Nowadays, the basket is custom-made, and strapped to the player’s wrist, but the general principle remains the same: capture and return the ball (called a ‘pelota’) off the front wall, ideally in such a way that your opponent can’t reach it before it bounces twice or goes out of play.
It’s that vocabulary thing again…
cancha The court on which jai-alai takes place.
cesta Spanish for “basket”, the curved throwing and catching instrument in jai-alai. Each is individually made for a player, depending on their specific needs and preferences. It is made from chestnut wood and reeds, both imported from Spain.
contracancha The wooden, foul area of the court down the right-hand side. Out-of-bounds if the pelota lands on it, but a player can catch and throw a ball from this area without penalty.
frontis The front playing wall; the punishment it takes can be seen from the fact that it’s made of granite blocks set in concrete…
fronton The building in which the sport is played.
jai-alai The game itself: in the Basque language, it means “merry festival” (“Jai” is festival; “Alai” means joyous). Pronounced ‘HI-a-LYE’.
juez Each of the three judges, who wear striped shirts, present during the games to make close calls.
lateral The side wall of the playing court on the left, opposite the contracancha.
pelota Spanish for “ball”. Handmade: virgin rubber wrapped in nylon thread and sewn into two goatskin covers.
pelotari A jai-alai player.
The pelota behaves like one of those super-balls you get in toy shops, so delivering and reading the ricochets and spin are crucial tests of your abilities. You must be able to come up with shots from all angles, and it’s common to see players hurling themselves to the floor, in order to take advantage of the ball’s speed as it passes over them, whipping it forward with additional momentum. There’s not a lot of room for error when you’re catching a 6 cm. pelota, travelling at lightning speed, in a basket maybe 8 cm. wide. And as if this wasn’t hard enough, to make things even trickier, the ball has to be returned immediately.
The game was first introduced to the United States in 1904, at the St.Louis World Fair; nowadays, Florida is the main area, with frontons in several cities, though the heart of jai-alai remains in France and Spain, and the sport was played at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. At the professional level in America, it exists largely as a focus for betting. Games are played between eight players, or teams in the case of doubles play; however, partners in the latter are perpetually switched around, for variety and to keep things balanced. A range of bets are on offer, allowing you to lose money in a number of interesting ways when your selections don’t perform. It’s “winner stays on”, with the loser of each rally going to the back of the queue, to await their next turn; the first to reach seven or nine points wins, with the scores of the others at that stage determining their positions. This makes for exciting games; the format means that a player can be on the verge of victory, only to have it snatched away by a single unlucky bounce. He is then forced to sit on the bench and watch while his rivals’ scores creep up…
Inevitably it is “his”; no woman has ever played the game at the highest standard. This is an unfailingly macho pastime, as can be seen by the limited protection worn by the players. Helmets were only introduced in the late 60’s and before then, fatalities due to head injuries were not uncommon. This is unsurprising when you consider that the pelota weighs only a little less than a cricket ball, yet can travel twice as fast as the most venomous bouncer. Nor is it a sport for left-handers; even they must use their right hands, because of the lop-sided design of the court. It is a young man’s game, with players in their mid-thirties being regarded as veterans – at the other end of the scale the youngest professional player was a mere nine years old when he made his debut in 1922. This makes Tiger Woods look positively geriatric.
Rallies are generally relatively short, especially in singles play, partly because of the speed of the ball – the record, set in 1979, stands at 301 km/h – partly because the playing area is big. There are no fixed sizes, and the dimensions of the cancha vary depending on the skill of the players, but at the top level, they can be sixty metres long, and usually around ten metres high and wide. Only one side wall is in play; the right hand side is out-of-bounds, and is replaced with glass or chain-mesh in order to give spectators a good view.
And it’s an ideal game to watch, because its basics are simple. Even after a few games, you begin to grasp the tactics, which are somewhat similar to those of squash: keep the ball as close to the side and the back as you can. In doubles play, one player takes the front and the other the rear of the court – just as in tennis, where you can dictate play if you’re at the net, so in jai-alai the players try to keep the ball out of the opposing front man’s reach.
Yet it is also infinitely subtle in its intricacies. For example, each pelota has individual characteristics, and they vary with time; one which has been played with recently will bounce more than a ‘cold’ ball. The player serving has the choice, but must offer it to the receiver, who can reject a torn or damaged pelota. This inspection gives them an idea of how lively it is, and in doubles play, a system of hand signals are used to communicate this vital information between the receiver and his partner.
Ernest Hemingway was entirely right to describe jai-alai as “constant excitement and manly effort taken to the utmost limits…fast, attractive and joyful”. He’s not the only celebrity fan; baseball legend Babe Ruth used to be an enthusiastic player, as was Paul Newman, while people from Art Garfunkel through Gene Hackman to Riddick Bowe have been seen enjoying games. It certainly is a change from theme-park queues: the princely sum of $1 buys general admission at the Orlando fronton, a remarkably cheap way to spend an afternoon in air-conditioned comfort, with beer and snacks available as well. Unlike some gambling pursuits, it’s not even necessary to bet to enjoy yourself: it’s fun simply to watch the games, and marvel at the skill and athletic ability of the players in one of the most memorable of sports.
Orlando Jai Alai, 6405 S.Highway 17-92 at S.R.436, Fern Park, FL 32730. (407) 339-6221
An interview with Tracy Moore, professional jai-alai player
Tracy Moore was born and raised in Miami, Florida. Now aged 36, he has been playing Jai-alai since he was 12, and professionally since he was 18.
What attracted you to Jai-alai?
My father used to own an amateur Jai-alai fronton. When he was in school, he was introduced to Jai-alai by a schoolmate and fell in love with the game. They made their own equipment and used to go behind a movie theatre to play every day. They were thrown out of there several times and eventually built their own court. My father allowed others to use it and the North Miami Amateur Jai-alai fronton was born. It was very successful and I was exposed to Jai-alai there. I played everyday as a child and eventually decided to make this my career. I have been playing professionally for 18 years now.
How are Jai-alai players picked?
By scouts. The scouts are sent to Spain, Mexico and France. I happened to be playing at the time in Tijuana, Mexico in the minors and was discovered by Santi, the player manager for the team in Orlando. He asked me to play with Orlando and I have been playing there ever since.
Is playing outside the country different than playing here?
Basically not. In Mexico, the game is the same and the betting is the same style. The only difference is in Spain and France. At their Jai-alai, the games are played with 35 point, two team plays instead of single 7 point games. These last much longer and the servers are sometimes asked to wait so that more betting can take place. The rules, the equipment and the uniform are exactly the same. Tradition states that a red sash must be worn – it’s the same one as worn during the running of the bulls in Spain – and that players must “march out” and salute the crowd to show respect.
What’s the most important event for Jai-alai players?
The Jai-alai World Championship, which is hosted every year in either Spain or France – it is very much like Wimbledon. The ten best players play in a round-robin until eventually the #1 plays the #2. Generally all the players in these games are from Spain and/or France. There are also Amateur World Championship games where players come from all over the world including the Phillippines, Cuba, China, etc.
Who is, in your opinion, the best player?
Well, as far as people in my generation are concerned, I feel that a player named Bolivar from Spain is the greatest. But he is now retired. The best player now is a Miami player from France named Michelaina.
The sport looks very hard on the arm muscles. Are injuries common?
The most common serious injury is in the shoulder where the bicep muscle drops. There are also lots of back injuries. We keep a full time trainer who is always helping us maintain ourselves and aids us with icing down after each game, massages, etc. I am lucky that in 18 years I have not had an injury serious enough to end my career. Some guys aren’t so lucky.
Since you are an American, are you treated differently? Do you ever feel like an outsider?
No. Language is not a problem since my wife is Mexican and I speak Spanish, though not fluently. I have never had any problems with other players, since they come over here very enthusiastic and eager to learn English, in order to meet girls!
How is the game organised in Florida?
Players are contracted for one year. Other frontons will make offers if they want you, or you are free to contact them yourself. The best part about working here in Orlando is that this particular fronton is year round. The only other year round fronton in the US is in Miami. The rest are seasonal so the players are limited. Although Jai-alai is an excellent sport, I am not thrilled that is basically a betting sport – I would like to see it as a normal sport, but since it is a betting sport, it derives most of its income from the gambling. Jai-alai business is a little slow now, ever since the institution of legalized gambling on Indian reservations in Florida, and the re-instatement of the State Lottery, as well as casino boats that sail out into the Atlantic. Because gambling was limited in Florida at one time to the horsetracks, dog tracks and Jai-alai, the frontons used to be constantly sold out. Now it is much easier to get in to see the games and they even allow families to bring their children to watch.
How do you feel about people betting on you?
I really don’t think about it. I think the only thing that affects me about the betting is that it is a motivating factor in my play.
Does it bother you when spectators heckle or scream?
Not really. The spectators do it all the time. We are professional and realize that if we show them it bothers us, they will do it more. So we basically ignore it.
How do players get paid?
We receive a base salary plus bonuses. If we come in first, second or third we will get extra bonuses, coming in first, of course being the highest, and we receive a bonus for actually playing a game. It motivates us to play better. Also, because of the fact that there are so many players out there who want to play professionally, we know that for each one of us, there are at least five out there who want our job. It’s another motivational factor!
Why do you play under the name ‘Bob’?
Bob is actually my middle name. My first name is Tracy and my middle name is Robert. The manager at the fronton knew my father and they always called him Bob. It is a tradition that if you come from a line of Jai-alai players, you would use your father’s name. So they used my father’s name on the roster for me.
Do you have plans for the future after Jai-alai?
I would like to play until I am at least forty. Then after that? Well, I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it…
The Sanrio empire is built around the creation of characters and their subsequent licencing. This represents merchandising in its purest and most distilled form: tie-ins without anything to tie to, spin-offs that revolve around nothing. You don’t buy Sanrio because of a movie or a TV show. You buy it, just because it is. And the jewel in their crown is the god-empress of cute known, for reasons lost in the mists of the 70’s, as Hello Kitty.
Kitty herself is trapped in the same kind of ageless, immortal timewarp as Barbie, locked forever in her early school years, along with twin sister Mimi and an assortment of marketable friends. But all this has been built up slowly over the years; her first appearance, on a purse, was anonymous. The name and background came later; nowadays, any true fan will reel off vital statistics such as her weight (“the same as three apples”), birthday (November 1st) and home – suburban London, albeit clearly a version of suburbia created by someone from third-hand accounts, and shaky on the basic concepts.
Kitty’s popularity is hard to explain; from a design point of view, she has an elegant simplicity of form, consisting of a few lines which even the artistically untalented like me can appreciate. Her character represents a purity and goodness of spirit whose appeal is reverberating around the world with increasing volume. Initially concentrated in the Far East, Sanrio has since spread to America, and there are even London pockets, in Hamley’s, Harrods and Selfridge’s.
Napalm Kitty – a haiku by Patrick Phipps
Napalm burns brightly As Hello Kitty calls in Another air strike
Sure, there’s a certain sarcasm in the way Hello Kitty has been co-opted by people like rockslut (and some say husband-killer) Courtney Love. But the beauty of Hello Kitty is that it makes no difference; she rises above it all, completely unbothered, regardless of any riot grrrrrl (and whatever happened to them?) following. You can dress your Hello Kitty soft toy in pink PVC, and pierce its most intimate regions, yet Kitty remains immune; you might as well try to appropriate the Moon for ironic purposes.
The breadth of what’s on offer is frightening, both in regular style and “special editions”, such as Angel Kitty, exclusively available in the West. Though Hello Kitty with wings and a halo does not really bear close examination – kinda implies that she is <sniff> dead…
The bible of all such things are the multiple volumes of the ‘Kitty Goods’ catalogue, an essential, largely incomprehensible (being in Japanese) guide to the Kittyverse. But what matters is not the text, it’s the pictures. It is hardly any exaggeration to say that you could outfit your entire life with Kittymabilia, from the slippers you put on in the morning, to the toothpaste you use last thing at night.
Perhaps the supreme icon of this Kitty-culture is the toaster – and not just a toaster, badged with a Sanrio logo. The machine’s Kittiness is inherent in its very essence – in what can only be termed a stroke of genius, it singes a picture of the mouthless deity herself onto the side of each slice. This is what six thousand years of civilization since the Sumerian era have been building towards.
The Top 10 of Kittymabilia
Daihatsu Mira (from 794,000 yen)
One of the above may be found in TC Towers, but I’m not saying which! Reports of a Hello Kitty vibrator are so far unconfirmed…
And now, those Japanese who grew up with Hello Kitty are having children of their own; hence the appearance of Hello Kitty Babies, to ensnare a future generation of Sanrioites. This seems to be working: Sanrio have stood up to the Asian economic crash robustly (sales actually went up 5% last year, to a disturbing 150 billion yen – that’s 750 million pounds, which is an awful lot of moist towelettes), possibly because Hello Kitty and her pals represent a safe haven from all that nasty unpleasantness.
For a few, however, it’s less a haven than a way of life. When the Japanese decide to do something, it’s usually with maximum dedication & effort, regardless of whether that something is pro-wrestling, war-crimes, economic expansion or, as in this case, acquiring industrial volumes of kawai – the Japanese term for cute. Some Sanrio fans therefore go for it bigtime, and the catalogue reveals rooms which contain so much HK that they would seem to be in danger of collapsing in on themselves into some sort of cheerful, pinkish singularity. Now, that’s really scary…
*Thanks to Jonathan C for (unwittingly!) supplying the title of this article…