While it was announced solely in the Facebook group -- yet another reason why you should absolutely request to join! -- the blog is currently on hiatus so I can recharge. Life has increasingly gotten in the way, as it often does, and things other than underground fights to the death and punching watermelons require my attention. Hard to believe, I know! That doesn’t mean this space will disappear any time soon, nor does it mean I’ll stop watching these kinds of movies. However, it may mean that ongoing coverage takes on different and less frequent forms than rambling 1200-word critical essays and cartoonish screen-caps of mulleted dudes mean-mugging.
Case in point, here’s what is hopefully the first of several “highlight reel” videos from what I’ve unofficially dubbed the “Burnt Ends” series. This installment is for the 1991 Gary Daniels masterpiece, American Streetfighter, or as it’s known overseas, Samurai Sword Fight in a Funeral Parlor. Please feel free to leave comments on this (positive or negative, as always) here or on YouTube.
PLUS! On the most recent episode of the Gentlemen’s Guide to Midnite Cinema podcast, I joined Large William and the Samurai to discuss the flaming skeletons and flying chickens of 1984’s Furious, and the proper tuck game and overt racism of 1992’s College Kickboxers. Click here to hear us discuss disproportionate stuntman screams, the futile nature of sex in hot tubs, and 1980s copyright law, among other topics.
To conclude, I just wanted to let the reader-only crowd know what was up. Reviews may be quiet for a little while as I get life sorted out, but they’re not gone. Please consider joining the Facebook group for more regular (and lively) activity and discussion. Be kind to animals and the elderly. Eat more bananas.
Director: Steve Cohen
Writer: Richard Brandes
Cast: Chad McQueen, Cynthia Rothrock, David Carradine, Andy McCutcheon, Philip Tan, Vincent Craig Dupree, Tony Longo, John Fujioka, Benny “The Jet” Urquidez, James Lew, Jeff Pruitt
I appreciate it when filmmakers go the extra yard to subvert genre conventions. The “reluctant partners” trope rears its head in 1990’s Martial Law, but director Steve Cohen has an ace up his sleeve. Not only are the partners at the center of this story willing to pair up professionally as police officers, but they’re also romantically involved and -- OH BY THE WAY -- martial artists. This comes from the widely held belief that the couples that stay together, play together, but also work with each other, and frequently bang each other. My feeling is that given the evolving cultural climate, it’s only a matter of time before we see a new genre of “more-than-buddies” cop movies. I’m all for future iterations of Riggs and Murtaugh living freely and openly.
Sean Thompson (McQueen) is a good cop. He makes a convincing pizza delivery man during hostage situations. He shakes down Chinatown gangsters with ease, and he can back-fist and sidekick with the best of them. But beneath that skill and toughness, there lies a palpable sadness. In the wake of his parents’ premature deaths, he has struggled to maintain a relationship with his younger brother, Michael (McCutcheon). It may have something to do with his complete inability to communicate, about which his girlfriend and fellow officer, Billie Blake (Rothrock), frequently complains. In any case, the raging teen has begun to go astray.
Michael now works for a crime lord named Rhodes (Carradine) who deals in expensive stolen cars, among other lucrative business pursuits. Of course, no gang is complete without hired muscle. Martial arts expert Wu Han (Tan) and lumbering oaf, Booker (Longo) flank Rhodes as his trusted advisers, and throw their weight around with aplomb. Michael’s skills as a carjacker are just fine and dandy, but as Rhodes points out, his burgeoning martial arts expertise cemented his made man status. This film will make you long for the cinematic underworld where employability is not dictated by one’s penchant for loyalty, ability to multitask, or skills in resource coordination, but instead by one’s skills in the dojo.
As Rhodes and his goons continue their violent and illegal business practices, from which dead bodies are just one biproduct, the cops take notice. With Michael caught between two roles -- a carjacker trying to make a good impression on his new boss, and the estranged brother of an emotionally distant cop -- tragedy seems a likely outcome. Can the elder Thompson bring his brother back from the dark side? What will Rhodes do if he discovers that his golden boy has a cop for a brother? Is it humanly possible to stage a nunchucks fight in an office with a drop ceiling?
It was only while conducting background research in conjunction with this review that I discovered that not only was McQueen trained by Chuck Norris, but he was a member of Johnny’s Cobra Kai homeboys in the original Karate Kid. Most of ya’ll are going, “YEAH NO KIDDING K-BREZ,” which is the new nickname I gave to myself just now. I would say this qualifies as another example of why my “martial arts b-movie reviewer on the Internet” card should be revoked but it’s not my fault. The minimum qualifications are really archaic: all you need is a 486 computer and the ability to tell the difference between Don “The Dragon” Wilson and Don Cheadle or Owen Wilson. In any case, on both the acting and fighting fronts, McQueen is pretty good, and I’m surprised he didn’t end up doing more films like this (he was replaced in the sequel by Jeff Wincott).
This was a cliched story with a few decent performances from Carradine, McQueen, and Vincent Craig Dupree as a paranoid gang member, but I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the fight scenes. Rothrock expectedly brings the thunder, but as an added bonus she gets a short fight with Benny “The Jet” Urquidez in a Stateside collision of 1980s Hong Kong action gweilo icons! Tan is a great athlete and an eminently watchable martial artist, and Carradine is, well… Carradine is a good actor. The stunt performers sell everything, the strike combinations are swift and logical, and there’s enough cardboard boxes to go around for all of us to pack up and move to Delaware. (Not necessarily recommended).
Solid execution is the cackling arch-nemesis of low expectations, and I’ll be the first to admit that I was surprised by the level of competency across the board. The performances were adequate for this type of film, the fights had good energy, and Cohen sidestepped a lot of the fatal flaws that often dog this subgenre. Sure, I could have used a bit more fighting with better sound effects. Maybe the secondary characters could have been more distinctive. More Rothrock would have been great (but when is that not the case?) Rather than downgrade Martial Law for quantities, however, I’ll give it credit for what’s on screen: a highly serviceable crime kickfighter.
There are definitely all region PAL discs floating around, but your best bet might be a used VHS copy.
4 / 7
Director: George Chung
Writer: George Chung
Cast: George Chung, Chuck Jeffreys, Stan Wertlieb, Hidy Ochiai, Troy Donahue, Elizabeth Frieje
Take a good, long look at the VHS cover for Karate Cops, or as it was known in Spain, LAS VEGAS, 2 SUPERPOLICIAS (2 SUPERCOPS for you gringos). Not too long, though! The 1988 film’s original title of Hawkeye -- a titular nod to the character played by George Chung -- didn’t provide an adequate amount of deference to the character played by Chuck Jeffreys, so they went with something more encompassing and less likely to be confused for a member of Marvel’s Avengers. A lot of folks have noted that Chuck Jeffreys’s cadence and line delivery bears more than a passing resemblance to that of Eddie Murphy. No one would confuse the two in a visual comparison though. So who exactly did the Spanish distributors think they were fooling with this video cover? Perhaps the better question is: was the cover artist a racist prick who thought all black males in the 1980s all looked the same? Perhaps the best question is: was this movie any good and was there any nudity? In no particular order, maybe and perhaps.
George Chung plays Alex “Hawk” Hawkamoto, a renegade cop, former non-baseball Texas Ranger, and burgeoning black belt in Las Vegas. After a botched negotiation with a group of bank robbers in which Hawk punches a hostage in order to knock out the captor behind him and then leads a violent shoot-out, his superiors and the mayor (Donahue) are in an uproar. In order to put him back in line, they pair him with Charles Wilson (Jeffreys), who just happens to be the city’s most decorated cop. Eager to create a foundation for a lasting friendship, Hawk makes a horribly racist joke and the pair trades punches. INSTANT BUDS!
The reluctant partners have plenty in common: they have girlfriends, they’re cops, and they’re martial artists who enjoy jogging. The reluctant partners are so different: Wilson doesn’t drink, Hawk hates sushi, Wilson abstains from eating red meat. However, they’re united in the mission to solve the murder of a shady middle-man who fell into some bad company. Was he snuffed out by gang leader Sakura (Ochiai)? Was he set up by mob boss Tony (Wertlieb)? What happens to stolen drug money after the police take custody of it and take their requisite 20% skim?
This is probably the greatest film in the history of cinema that uses Comic Sans font during an opening credit sequence shot on VHS. The first 30 minutes of the film contains a botched drug deal, our hero taking a black belt test to honor his YMCA instructor, a bank heist by a femme fatale and incognito Ronnie Lott, expensive vase shooting, racist jokes that would make Don Rickles blush, and a random hostage punching (by the hero). Amazing stuff, but perhaps this pace was unsustainable. Maybe Chung ran out of ideas. Maybe my expectations for “lost” genre gems are unrealistic following the renaissance brought about by movies like Miami Connection. Whatever the reason, the film grinds to a halt as the reluctant partners then attempt to detangle the loose threads of a half-baked police procedural plot. I say “attempt” because I’m still not sure what happened or why characters were doing what they were doing. I do know, however, that the main characters didn’t do nearly enough of what they should have been doing: fighting.
Jeffreys and Chung get to show their action chops in a few isolated scenes, but they’re few and far between. A shoot-out on the Las Vegas strip feels like too little, too late. There’s not really any stand-out stunt work of which to speak, though some of the gun-play is marked by healthy squib usage. I came away feeling really underwhelmed by the action in this action movie, and part of the blame lies with Chung as a director, and Frank Harris as the director of photography. The over-emphasis on comedic and dramatic elements may have been the byproduct of Chung having too many production roles, a lack of willing stunt people, or even Chung using this film as a showcase for his acting skills instead of his action skills. However, what action is on the screen doesn’t flow that well and looks washed out, with poor composition from shot to shot. Some may recall that Harris collaborated with Leo Fong on at least two drab action films in the mid-1980s, and went on to squander a stacked cast for the post-apocalyptic Aftershock (1990). Lo and behold, Fong is an executive producer on this very feature! I’m not sure what I’m trying to say here other than Harris and Fong working together screams “bad juju!” like that creepy antique doll whose eyes follow you around the vintage store when you’re digging for Al Green vinyl.
There are very few actors featured on this site who are as decorated in the world of real-life as George Chung. He was a founding member of the vaunted West Coast Demo Team. He’s a five-time world karate champion. He earned a Super Bowl ring as a martial arts trainer for the 1994 San Francisco 49ers. Currently, he serves as Chief Content Officer for Crunchyroll and has served executive functions for several media companies. Any one of us would be lucky enough to have accomplished one of those things in our lifetimes, yet Chung has compiled all of those accolades and more. He has an easygoing charisma here and while he doesn’t carry the weight of the film, I can imagine he’d have an enjoyable wise-cracking presence in an ensemble cast. That said, he has his fair share of awkward emotional moments, so maybe we’ve discovered the one thing he isn’t good at. Take THAT, wildly successful George Chung!
It’s hard to do action and comedy really well. There are plenty of films and franchises that have made the combination seem easy as pie, but executing either genre element well individually is a feat in itself. The comedy in Karate Cops -- both intentional and unintentional varieties -- is given much more run than the action scenes, often to the detriment of the film. That Chung and Jeffreys were in their physical primes makes the low quotient of action scenes all the more puzzling. Add in a clunky plot and you have a recipe for meh, or maybe blah, depending on where you live. Karate Cops is a rare curiosity for those itching for deep cuts from this subgenre and these actors, but ultimately it can’t overcome its narrative shortcomings and low budget.
To my knowledge, this only made it as far as VHS, and it's a pain in the ass to find. Happy hunting!
3 / 7
PLOT: The light heavyweight kickboxing champion of Ohio seeks out his hero for training before a major tournament held in Las Vegas. Can the young upstart save his drunken master from his demons?
Director: Joseph Merhi
Writer: Stephen Smoke
Cast: Michael Worth, Lorenzo Lamas, Kathleen Kinmont, Jeff Langton, Mimi Lesseos, Art Camacho, Gary Daniels, Ian Jacklin, Frank Rivera
The majority of opening title sequences in direct-to-video fight films are so bland that even the slightest deviation proves compelling. Had 1992’s Final Impact featured two minutes of arbitrary text touting the professional accomplishments of the film’s kickboxing stars over some generic rock track, I wouldn’t have blinked. I may have fallen asleep. I may have started doing semi-nude poom sae along to the beat of the generic rock track. Who the hell knows. It doesn’t matter, because Joseph Merhi gives us something different. In close shots with careful lighting, we get random hands oiling up random bodies. Hands wrapping hands in tape. Hands lacing up bikinis. Fists punching into palms with powdery impact. Hands applying lipstick. Hands tying shoelaces. I thought all of these hands belonged to the same rugged but sensual kickboxing lady, so I was pretty stoked.
It was all for naught, though, because there is no foxy kickboxer with equal attention to proper hand wrapping and well-blended cosmetics. This is the story of Nick Taylor (Lamas), an alcoholic kickboxing ex-champion and his new student, Danny Davis (Worth), a promising youngster in need of mentorship. Their paths cross in what might be the most amazing bar in the history of cinema. Women in nothing but oil and bikinis wrestle each other on one side, while sweaty brutes kickbox the daylights out of each other in a ring on the other side. (Thus, all the random hands in the opening). In between these two attractions, people dance, drink, and socialize. I didn’t see any skee ball or tabletop shuffleboard, but I’m sure they had them in a side room.
Danny is disappointed to find that his kickboxing hero has turned into a drunkard only three years after his title loss to arch-rival Jake Gerrard (Langton). Still, after proving himself through a short exhibition against Gary Daniels during his immaculate ponytail phase, Danny convinces Nick to take him on as a pupil. He spends time training at Nick’s home, in the patient company of his girlfriend Maggie (Kinmont), and she’s suspicious of her boyfriend’s intentions. Is Nick using Danny to win fight money? For a self-esteem boost? Or to take out his rival, Gerrard, and regain his past glory?
If you’ve been following this site for a while, you’ll notice that this is our first foray into the work of Lorenzo Lamas. For fans of American chopsocky, this might constitute an egregious omission but at this point, I have Lorenzo-phobia deep in the bone. First, I hated the Renegade television series. Hated it. There was also a fairly well-documented incident in which Lamas broke Avedon’s nose during a shoot for the former’s self-defense video and didn’t handle it with much professionalism. (Considering the results, it was for the best that he removed himself from the production). Avedon has great stories, and he’s been a class act in all of my interactions with him. He was one of the best screen fighters of his era, and I like the guy. If you’re a huge fan of Larry Bird, can you also be a fan of Bill Laimbeer? Dr. J? If you’re being real about it, probably not. To be fair, if Lamas could dunk a basketball from the free-throw line, I might feel more conflicted. Few actors other than Michael J. Fox can get that kind of hang-time.
That said, his involvement in the film’s pivotal restaurant scene is cinematic gold. Boozed to the gills, Nick stumbles over and confronts Gerrard (and the ex-wife his rival married, played by Mimi Lesseos) during a contentious altercation that leaves everyone feeling weird. Everything about this 50 seconds of the film is brilliant, from the bolo tie and Gerrard dressed in an outfit straight out of Night at the Roxbury, to Nick’s apparent self-satisfaction after calling his ex-wife a whore during a totally childish exchange. And what is the mythical Neon Graveyard to which Gerrard refers? (For the record, we find out later). Watch below for just a taste.
As the old cliche goes, the enemy is within. To be clear, Jeff Langton does his best to play Jake Gerrard as an obnoxious Jersey-tinged meathead, but he simply doesn’t have enough screentime or good lines to cement himself as a memorable villain. His fighting is vicious at the appropriate times, but Langton also lacks the look and physical stature to provide the audience with any sense of awe about his skills. We know the role of Gerrard is pivotal in Nick’s story arc because of the alcoholic tailspin that results from their fight. Thus, the real villain in this story is Nick’s rampant alcoholism. This character flaw makes him selfish, volatile, and visibly hammered for the vast majority of the film. We’ve seen the alcoholic mentor trope plenty -- in everything from King of the Kickboxers to Breathing Fire -- but Merhi really pushes it front and center as a major story element. Tequila with a chaser of blind vengeance is an especially dangerous mix.
Despite a capable fight choreographer in Eric Lee, I had low expectations about the action scenes in this film considering the long history of humdrum depictions of legitimate kickboxing tournaments. For the most part, there’s nothing here that you haven’t seen in dozens of films just like it. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the use of genuine psychology in the fighting itself. Several of the fighters have distinctive styles -- Gerrard is a roughneck brawler who aims for vital organs, and crowd favorite Jacky Clark is a flashy show-off -- and Danny is positioned as the well-rounded fighter who can effectively counter each of them. During breaks in between rounds, Nick relays his thoughts and then Danny deploys the strategy to successful results. I’m not sure what the correct countermove was for Gerrard’s signature “trap opponent in corner, pick up both of his legs and start headbutting him in the pelvis” attack, but Danny avoids it entirely.
This is the second time in three PM Entertainment films that Michael Worth played the trainee to a mentor on the hard sauce (see, To Be the Best). In that film, he got lost in the shuffle due to a large ensemble cast. Here, both his character and his performance are more interesting and layered. Worth captures Danny’s alternating streaks of cocky and naive convincingly, and he brings a palpable energy to the fight scenes. More than that, his engaged demeanor provides a nice counterbalance to Lamas’s cool and detached line delivery. Which is to say, sort of drunk.
While not exactly an original work, Final Impact is a tournament fight film with decent in-ring action, a couple of good performances, and a lot of alcohol consumption, all under the bright lights of Vegas. While this was marketed as a Lorenzo Lamas film, it works better as a solid debut vehicle for Worth, playing a character trying to overcome his selfish mentor’s self-destructive bullshit. Recommended for fans of Lamas who would rather watch him drink than fight.
Netflix, Amazon, YouTube.
Netflix, Amazon, YouTube.
4 / 7
Director: Cirio Santiago
Writer: Anthony L. Greene
Cast: Cat Sassoon, Melissa Moore, Michael Shaner, Roland Dantes, Cristina Portugal, Tony Carreon, Henry Strzalkowski, Joseph Zucchero, Jim Moss
There are few performances in film that can be described as truly chameleonic. Few characters are conceptualized in such a way as to grant us access to the various layers of their personalities. Denis Lavant’s Monsieur Oscar in Holy Motors comes to mind, as does Joaquin Phoenix in The Master. After viewing the Corman-produced, Santiago-directed 1993 action film, Angelfist, I think we can add Cat Sassoon and her character of Kat Lang to that same elite group. Over the course of roughly 80 minutes, she encompasses a wide variety of flavors and colors. She’s a cop, she’s a kickboxer. She’s white as a sheet, she’s tanned to the color of an indoor basketball. She’s dressed in her Muay Thai best, she looks like a backup dancer for Paula Abdul.
A rugged and experienced cop, Kat is cleaning up the mean streets of Los Angeles when she receives word that her kickboxing sister, Kristie (Birzag) has been murdered in Manila. Kristie captured the murder of a U.S. military man on film, and a terrorist group called the Black Brigade responded a little harshly. One airplane transition later, and Kat is knocking down doors and beating up random Filipinos in a search for answers. The local Manila police are useless and paranoid, and the U.S. embassy is no help at all due to constant protests and pressure from the local population.
With the assistance of a shallow himbo nicknamed Alcatraz (Shaner), Kat talks her way into a meeting with her sister’s former fight trainer, Bayani (Dantes). Only after winning his respect during a sparring contest is she able to set the wheels in motion for a break in the case. In order to uncover more solid leads to chase, she enters the local ladies karate tournament in which her sister took part. Upon joining their ranks, she not only catches the attention of her sister’s friend, Lorda (Moore), but also last year’s champion and secret brigadier, the standoffish, Bontoc (Portugal). Will Kat avenge her sister's death? Who are her true enemies and allies? Why do the fight organizers call this thing a "kubate" instead of a "kumite?" And why does Kat's skin tone vary so wildly by time of day and lighting?
So, about those action scenes. The tournament fighting is marked by extremely repetitive strikes and an almost complete disregard for defense and blocking. Moore and Sassoon, in particular, are guilty of awkward fight stances in which they curl their arms up close to their bodies while kicking, almost in an effort to conceal something -- a strange choice given the sheer amount of toplessness throughout much of the film. Cirio makes sure to combine said toplessness with an actual fight, putting Kat in the crosshairs of would-be assassins who raid Alcatraz’s apartment as she’s fresh out of the shower. In the absence of technical sheen, the stunt players sell HUGE for Sassoon and others. Enemies go screaming and flailing through walls and tables. Any piece of furniture that isn’t nailed down gets incorporated and smashed to pieces.
Sassoon gets all of the bits to put her in position to win our hearts and look awesome. Our introduction to the Kat character involves her jumping through a window with an uzi to waste a bunch of drug dealers. She wins the respect of Bayani by whooping him in an eskrima sparring match. She also takes a three-story fall from an apartment window that sees her smash through multiple levels of scaffolding to the street below. No one will ever mistake her for Moon Lee or Karen Sheperd in terms of ballsy action scenes, but I’ll put it this way: I’d wear a t-shirt with the visage of a growling Kat Lang for virtually any occasion. Even if it was a tank top!
It’s impossible to discuss this film without noting the untimely death of its star. Sassoon had a purported five-picture contract with Roger Corman, but was unable to see it through (I’m still anxious to see her Bloodfist franchise appearances). Discarding the minor transgressions of occasional duckface and dated wardrobe, most would agree that whether it’s an awkward love scene, a rompy fight, or long shots of her smoking a cigarette, Sassoon brings a palpable zest to the film. She’s clearly committed to this role and she got the memo about its tone; that effort is observable and lasting. Given the timing of her death in 2002, it’s difficult to say whether she would have weathered the erosion of the DTV action market that affected so many other stars in the early 2000s. Still, Angelfist is a unique time capsule that features Sassoon at her best, which is to say fierce, tanned, and mysteriously shiny.
Knowing that Corman took an active interest in creating “feminist exploitation films” -- using female protagonists as both asskickers and objects of lust -- I’m interested to know if viewers feel that Angelfist achieves this odd label. I’m undecided. The ladies here fight and snarl and save the day, but they also stand around awkwardly and navigate detachable shower heads over their nude bodies during inexplicable transition scenes. They’re terrorized by captors and pushed bare chest-first into blocks of ice, but they also deliver dialogue that earns the film a passing grade on the Bechdel test. Is Bontoc considered a villain because she’s part of a terrorist network, or because she never disrobes? There’s some serious contradictions at work here and I’m frankly not intelligent enough to sort it out. Maybe the Internet’s first aspirational expert in the subgenre of nude kickboxing movies, Keith over at Teleport City, can render a decision on this. Inquiring minds want to know.
Despite its flaws -- acting and originality among them -- Angelfist is a very entertaining film. It observes the loose but effective “action beat” rule where *something* interesting happens approximately every 10 minutes. (Even if it does nothing whatsoever to push the story forward or distract us from the arbitrary nudity). Despite her limitations as a peformer, Sassoon is ferocious and convincing as an action movie heroine, and the stunt team makes everyone look good. A fine effort from Cirio Santiago and something of an unheralded gem from the Concorde-New Horizons canon.
Angelfist is at the ready on DVD or VHS.
4 / 7