Justice Ninja Style (1985)

Over on our sibling site at Death Ray Dive, we reviewed the ultra-low-budget, shot-on-video 1985 action romp, JUSTICE NINJA STYLE, starring some enthusiastic amateur filmmakers from the state of Missouri.

"The film’s climax ... features a surprisingly gory ending that almost makes up for the ninja’s throwing star ('shuriken') constantly bopping people on the hand instead of getting painfully lodged in flesh, the way a proper shuriken should. In this way, the film shows how dull shurikens also make for dull reaction shots where people wince as if they just touched a really hot waffle."

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Ballistic (1995)


Over on our sibling site at Death Ray Dive, we reviewed the ultra-cool 1995 action film BALLISTIC starring Marjean Holden.

"Armed with a stacked cast of genre movie veterans, a badass lead performer, and an entire warehouse full of cardboard boxes, BALLISTIC is the stuff that b-movie dreams are made of."

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Treasure of the Ninja (1987)


Over on our sibling site at Death Ray Dive, we reviewed the enjoyable and endearing 1987 shot-on-Super-8 martial arts crime classic TREASURE OF THE NINJA, starring, edited, and directed by William Lee.

"A martial arts special agent travels halfway across the world to help a team of archaeologists hunt for treasure. Along the way, they’ll fight ninjas, zombie ninjas, a zombie ninja final boss, and a jerk from Florida with a mustache."

Read more on Death Ray Dive


Drive (1997)

PLOT: A Chinese corporation implants a man with a synthetic “bio-engine” that gives him enhanced reaction time, speed, and fighting ability. When he flees to California, the group scrambles to prevent him from delivering the device to a competitor. This is why it’s important to require your cyborg prototypes to sign non-disclosure agreements.

Director: Steve Wang
Writer: Scott Phillips
Cast: Mark Dacascos, Kadeem Hardison, John Pyper-Ferguson, Brittany Murphy, Tracey Walter, James Shigeta, Masaya Kato, Ron Yuan, David Hayter


In a 2010 article for Wired, comedian Patton Oswalt articulated the idea, “Everything that ever was, available forever” (ETEWAF) as a way of framing geek culture in the era of high-speed Internet and on-demand content. In some ways, this idea also extends to our current film geek landscape, where dozens of boutique genre film distribution labels are dedicated to the high-resolution restoration of obscure films that were only ever released to the VHS rental market (if that!) The horror and exploitation genres have been the primary beneficiaries of this technological wave, resulting in the mass availability of films that few saw during their initial home video runs. Unfortunately, the vast majority of cult action films have been orphaned as undeserving of this same glossy treatment. That said, if I were to start my own prestige action movie label tomorrow, and I was forced to pick one movie as the flagship release, it would be Steve Wang’s 1997 film, Drive.

Toby Wong (Dacascos) is a walking, talking science experiment, implanted by the nefarious Leung Corporation with an experimental “turbo drive” device that gives him borderline superhuman physical abilities. When things go sideways, Wong flees to the American West Coast, hoping to travel from San Francisco to Los Angeles to a more benevolent tech company that will uninstall the device and pay him a hefty sum of money for the technological advances that it yields. Unfortunately, Leung Corporation’s head honcho, Mr. Lau (Shigeta) has outsourced the apprehension of Wong (the “object”) to a group of violent and savvy American mercenaries led by Vic Madison (Pyper-Ferguson) and Hedgehog (Walter), and they’re hot on Wong’s trail.

Mere moments after pulling up a stool at a Bay Area bar to drink some five-hop hipster brew, Toby is forced to fight and flee again, this time with the help (however coerced) of a struggling and divorced songwriter, Malik Brody (Hardison) and his 1973 Dodge Challenger. After Toby shares the reasons for his actions and offers Malik half of his money once they get to L.A., the pair joins together for a high-paced chase from a dangerous group of men. Will they make it to Los Angeles in one piece? Can they trust each other, let alone the people they meet along the way? And is it elephant seal mating season at this time of year? Because I’ve heard there are some good stops along the Pacific Coast Highway to watch them on the beach.

THIS MOVIE IS INSANE. I’ve been banging this drum for a long time, and I haven’t seen everything, but Drive has the best fight choreography of any American action b-movie I’ve ever seen. You can certainly make arguments for both of the Undisputed sequels, a few other Scott Adkins movies, or perhaps 2008’s Broken Path (directed by Koichi Sakamoto, who did choreography in this film), but for me, this is still tops. The differences in environment, the use of weapons (e.g., guns, “stun rods,” boots, and even dirtbikes), and the consideration of impediments (e.g., Toby handcuffed to Malik), are all deployed logically and effectively. The fight scenes scale well, they’re shot and edited competently, and they escalate appropriately toward a truly bonkers climax where Toby fights a more advanced model of himself (Kato) in an Apollo-themed night club. The filmmakers, comprised of a Taiwan-born American director and an action team of primarily Japanese and American performers, managed to approximate the look and feel of classic Hong Kong fight choreography (specifically, Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung) during just a six-week production schedule. Is it *as good* as the best from Hong Kong’s golden era? No, but it’s in the conversation. That alone is a major feat for a low-budget direct-to-video action film made in the States.

As good as the fight scenes are, you have to also consider what’s happening during the downtime. The plot is silly but fairly simple, with elements of a road movie, a reluctant partner buddy-cop dynamic, and the man-as-machine territory Wang previously explored with the Guyver films. Hardison and Dacascos forge an easygoing chemistry together over the course of the film; the early bits feel a little forced but Hardison’s light demeanor makes their conversations interesting and at the mid-way point, they started to play better off each other. Their counterparts on the other side of the moral spectrum, John Pyper-Ferguson and Tracey Walter, have a more consistent and natural vibe, along with quirkier character ticks. Walter’s Hedgehog is into bad American television programming (e.g., Walter the Einstein Frog, more on that here) and a junk food intake bemoaned by his partner, Madison. In creating the look for his country-fried hitman, Pyper-Ferguson seems to be channeling equal parts Clint Eastwood in Coogan’s Bluff and Gary Oldman in Bram Stoker’s Dracula with his bolo ties, tinted glasses, and manicured facial hair. It’s an odd, entertaining performance and he delivers some of the best lines of dialogue in the film (on Toby, he remarks that “the son of a bitch could eat flour and shit cupcakes.”)

Brittany Murphy’s performance as the flaky, motel heir, Deliverance Bodine is alternately grating and colorful. At times, she lays on the crazy vibe too thick, and combined with her exposition-laden dialogue, it makes the character feel one-dimensional. (We’ve all met people who come on too strong too quickly, so it’s still believable). It’s only through Deliverance’s continuing interactions with Malik and Toby that we see Murphy peel away the additional layers -- she knows a ton about cars and handles automatic weapons with the glee of a kid in a water balloon fight -- and by the end of the trio’s time together, I was actually looking forward to more. I may be alone on that, and I’m fine with it. 

In terms of overall performance, Dacascos may be the biggest revelation of them all. As the action star and focal point of some fast and complex fight choreography, he’s already carrying a heavy load. He surprised me with his ability to handle comedy, though, from his timely facial expressions to a bizarre singing scene that precedes the climax. Very few action stars have the will and self-awareness to try some of that stuff, let alone make it work. This sort of rare and multi-faceted performance will only reinforce the notion that Dacascos should have been a much, much bigger star. (Iron Chef America ain't a bad place to unwind, I suppose.)

If there’s one big critique I have of this film, it’s the pacing and padding. The version of the film I watched was the 117-minute director’s cut. That’s a bit long for this sort of movie, and you really notice the length during several scenes with expository dialogue that don’t move the story forward. According to one of the special features on the disc, Dacascos’s singing scene at the Apollo 14 Club -- he serenades Malik with a song about Malik’s own dysfunctional romantic relationship with his ex-wife -- was only supposed to show three verses. With this version of the film, we get the whole shebang, and while it’s kinda funny and a great example of Dacascos’s charisma, it’s endemic of the sort of bloat that occasionally dogs the movie. Because the action scenes are so frequent and so good, this film gets away with it, but a lesser action film might not. Similar to Guyver: Dark Hero, it seems that Wang either fell in love with too much of the footage, or couldn’t determine how to streamline the story in the editing room.

When Seasonal Films started their run of English-language productions back in the mid-1980s, they infused those films with varying versions of Hong Kong style action choreography. They recognized that good fight scenes took time, but the process was a worthy investment. The blueprint had been translated and was demonstrated to work for the American market. So many American b-movies that came afterward were either unable or unwilling to follow that model, though, and you’ve been reading about those movies for years on this very platform. Drive is something a perfect storm, though. It had a great action star, with a great stunt team, along with a director with unique visual sensibilities, and just enough money to make it all work. But it also came at a time when American audiences, especially those consuming DTV action films, had more and more Hong Kong film directly at its fingertips. Drive was able to cater directly to that appetite in a way that its DTV brethren of the decade prior probably ignored. 


Generally speaking, Drive is not a perfect film, but its strengths are so off-the-charts exceptional, that it would be ridiculous of me to dock it points for the absence of silly DTV genre markers like Zubaz pants or bad line delivery. After all, shouldn’t fight films be about the fighting itself? If your answer is no, quit being a smart-ass. If your answer is yes, there is no finer or more convincing example of an English-language movie executing Hong Kong-style action choreography during this era than Drive. The Seasonal Films Corporation’s “Super 7” set the bar, and this film just about jumps over it. Strongly recommended. 


Your best bets are Amazon or eBay on DVD. Be mindful that there's a few different versions floating around, including the aforementioned "Director's Cut" with lots of bonus features.

7 / 7


Fists of Steel (1991)

PLOT: A former boxer and Vietnam veteran is called into action after a terrorist group executes his father. The head of the group is hiding out in Hawaii, under the assumption that the prohibitively expensive airfare and living costs will keep away federal investigators.

Director: Jerry Schafer
Writer: Jerry Schafer
Cast: Carlos Palomino, Henry Silva, Marianne Marks, Kenny Kerr, Sam Melville, Robert Tessier, Alexis Arguello, Rockne Tarkington


So many b-grade action films of the 1980s and ‘90s have featured professional kickboxers as the lead stars, but few of them attracted strict practitioners of the sweet science. One might think that some of boxing’s finest trash talkers -- from Roy Jones Jr. to James Toney -- would have made the transition to acting in droves, but that was not quite the case. Marvelous Marvin Hagler starred in a couple of Italian b-movies (Indio, Indio 2, respectively) and Ken Norton broke into movies in the late 1970s with Mandingo and its sequel, Drum. Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini was prolific in supporting roles throughout the ‘80s, and Sugar Ray Leonard appeared in the 1997 Gary Daniels film, Riot. With more than 30 acting credits to his name, though, few boxers had the dramatic seasoning of former welterweight champion of the world, Carlos Palomino. With massive and loyal fan bases in Mexico and Southern California, he was well-positioned for a move into Hollywood. Filmed in 1988, tested theatrically in 1989, and finally released to video in 1991, Fists of Steel was his foray into action movies as a leading star.

Carlos (Palomino) is a former boxing champion, a doting father to a little girl, and a Marine veteran of the Vietnam War. He’s also a complete unknown within the American national security apparatus and its adversaries, which makes him the perfect candidate for a dangerous mission. His veteran pal at the C.I.A., Bobby Breenberg (Melville), reaches out to Carlos after his team comes into possession of a videotape that depicts Carlos’s father being killed at a terrorist camp run by Shogi (Silva), a sadistic drug kingpin and terrorist mastermind currently hiding in Hawaii. Due to information leaks and Shogi’s apparent familiarity with agency personnel, no one has been able to disrupt his activities or infiltrate his network. Every agent who got close shared the fate of thousands of innocents, and got killed. However, as an outsider, and compelled by vengeance for his father’s murder, Carlos may be the right man to cut off the “head of the snake.”

In addition to his military background, peak physical condition, and hand-to-hand combat prowess, Carlos has another ace up his sleeve: his hands were reinforced with steel, giving him exceptional knockout power (as Breenberg awkwardly dubs them, his “puños de acero”). In looking over the file on Shogi and his number-one assassin, a former KGB agent, Katrina (Marks), Carlos disregards any illusions about a quick and efficient termination of his target, stating that “[Shogi’s] gonna die slow, and mean, and hard.” His only other demand of Breenberg and his C.I.A. unit is that he work alone, with his own trusted group of friends from Los Angeles.

One of these friends puts Carlos in contact with Girl (Kerr), a big-haired singer who seems to know every shade of questionable character in the nightlife scene, including drug dealers like Saylor (Tessier). Carlos’s hope is that by scoring some narcotics, he’ll have a ticket into the supply chain, and he can then work his way up the ladder to Shogi. Will he be able to infiltrate the madman’s defense and put a stop to the senseless killings? Can he trust Girl and the other people he meets in the Aloha State? Will he be able to quickly and frequently traverse the island given the cost of gas, or instead be forced to ride a bicycle to get from one location to the next?

Hold onto your butts, this is a wild one. From the opening scene, the Henry Silva performance we failed to get in Trained to Kill is here in all of its bizarre splendor. Shogi kicks off the film with a trio of odd killing scenes. In the first, he dresses up in a baseball uniform to pummel an informer to death with a baseball bat (but only after turning on a lively dance track, and activating a disco ball and fog machine to liven things up). In the next scene, he dresses in a dentist’s outfit and drops hydrochloric acid into an agent’s open eyes. And in the final scene to cement his status as the film’s lead antagonist, he oversees the daytime stabbing of a man in a public park from the comfort of his limo. As a refined evildoer, Shogi likes death in high volume, and his booze at exactly 78 degrees fahrenheit. 

In a 1988 Sports Illustrated article published after production wrapped, Palomino and Jerry Schafer both had high hopes for how Fists of Steel would impact the theaters and the Mexican-American self-image. Palomino noted his character was “saving the youth of American from drug runners,” and Schafer believed it would “do for middle- and upper-class Hispanics what ‘The Bill Cosby Show’ did for similarly situated blacks.” Sadly, the film never saw a proper theatrical release and if its rarity on the VHS resale market is any indication, it quickly fell out of circulation on home video.

Its obscurity is exacerbated by a strangely simple issue: the title. Efforts to find it using your favorite search engine on title keywords alone will most likely lead to the 1993 Dale Apollo Cook and Cynthia Khan team-up, Fist of Steel (also known as Eternal Fist). But it could also lead to this Time-Life book about the Third Reich or even this box set of Chuck Norris movies -- yikes! These cases of mistaken identity seem appropriate for a film interested primarily in themes and issues of identity. Carlos is a Vietnam vet who gets coaxed into a covert operation by the Caucasian friend with whom he served, but once he takes the assignment, he refuses any direct help from that friend or the institution that employs him. Instead, he relies solely on his network of Mexican friends based in Los Angeles. The subtext is that for Carlos, his ethnic and social identity as a Mexican man trumps his experiential identity as a military veteran; he finds more trust and security among social peers than his operational cohorts. 

Kerr prided himself on his ability to impersonate famous women, from Cher to Barbara Streisand and more. He was a trailblazer and pioneer for the art of drag performance, and a huge star in Las Vegas, but did not identify as a woman. It’s more difficult to find that line of distinction with his character, Julie “Girl” Darcel, though. Virtually every character in the film refers to Girl with the pronouns of “she/her” and while it’d be nice to think that Shafer & Co. were attempting to strike a progressive blow for transgender equality in an era that frequently and woefully mishandled certain gender expression as deviant or evil, that good will is almost totally eroded by an unnecessary reveal in the last act of the film. Nuanced questions around gender identity on a blog about b-grade chopsocky films is a rare commentary, I’ll grant you that, but if the topic makes you uncomfortable you can always watch some Steven Seagal movies for a macho safe space. Regardless, Kerr is really good in this role, and his tense interrogation scene with Silva was a high-point for me. 

There are other identity-focused story threads as well. The C.I.A. operatives mention that Shogi is a man of ambiguous Middle Eastern origin, but Silva makes no effort to play the part in that way. As Katrina, Marks’s vaguely Russian accent comes and goes. In a scene that was clearly designed to offend as many people as possible, Breenberg dresses in brown-face and women’s clothing in order to surprise Carlos as a hotel maid, solely for the purpose of nudging him into a vacant room for a mission status report. All of this adds up to a wildly paranoid tone that presumably tries to demonstrate that things nor people are ever as they seem. The only exception is our hero, Carlos, who is definitely Mexican, undoubtedly a former boxing champ, and presumably a guy with steel joints and knuckles: “puños de acero.”


Fists of Steel is a surprisingly original film that stands out from the pack due in large part to the strengths of its performances. Kerr’s performance is terrific and he consistently steals scenes throughout the film. Palomino is a likable lead star capable of carrying the movie on his back, and Silva alternates between suave and unhinged as only he can. Throw in an unpredictable script, solid action, two completely bizarre book-end scenes, and you’ve got a cinematic gift that keeps on giving. 


Difficult to find on official physical media. Seek the gray market, my friends. This film is worth it.

5 / 7

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