5.18.2016

Hard Justice (1995)

PLOT: A grief-ridden ATF agent goes undercover as a prison inmate to find his partner’s killers. Will he have time to close the case between shower beatings, prison yard basketball games, and the gastrointestinal issues caused by cafeteria slop?

Director: Greg Yaitanes
Writer: Scott Nicholas Amendolare, Chris Bold
Cast: David Bradley, Yuji Okumoto, Charles Napier, Vernon Wells, Jim Maniaci, Benita Telles, Clabe Hartley, Alon Stivi





PLOT THICKENER

Almost nothing in life is easy. Not microwaveable macaroni and cheese (I own a toaster oven). Not Sunday morning (what if you have a hangover)? And certainly not the year 1995; if you want proof, a whopping five films containing the word “hard” were released. One of them was Hard Justice -- a film that combines the directorial chops of Greg Yaitanes, Hong Kong-style action pieces, 40% of the plot from Van Damme’s Death Warrant, and American Ninjalumni David Bradley. “How can I handle all these awesome things at once?” you ask, crying in your microwaveable macaroni and cheese. What -- you thought justice would be easy? Ha! Justice is hard, dummy.

Nick Adams (Bradley), is an ATF agent hot on the heels of gun-running jerkwad Jimmy Wong (Okumoto). After a sting operation goes chaotic, Nick and company are able to bring Wong into custody, but the hostage at the center of their confrontation loses her life. To make matters worse, ATF gal-pal Hannah (Telles) informs Nick that his partner, Manny -- an agent working undercover as an “inmate” in the state penitentiary --  has been knifed to death by unknown assailants. Fueled by guilt, he demands that Chief Dickerson (Hartley) puts him on the same deep cover assignment so that he can root out Manny’s killers.


Once inside, Nick’s struggle to survive is all too real. He becomes fast friends with his rapey cellmate, Mr. Clean (Maniaci), but only after a brutal slug-fest for claim to the top bunk that ends with a discovery of their shared Marine Corps credentials. Nick’s fresh meat status also attracts the unwanted attention of Warden Pike (Napier) and his vicious subordinates. The beatings come swiftly, and due to his anti-authority posturing, his stays in solitary confinement are frequent. As Nick begins to uncover a deadly plot within the prison walls, his old nemesis Wong begins his sentence, and he alone can reveal Nick’s true identity and potentially turn everyone against him.


This film was the tits. The bee's knees. The manatee’s balls. Whatever anatomical euphemism you have for things you find awesome will be uttered during the film’s lean 88-minute runtime. I wrote down the phrase “Hard Justice ain’t fuckin around” four separate times in my viewing notes. While I’d always heard in b-movie action circles that this was not just David Bradley’s best film, but also one of the best action b-movies of the DTV era, I was still surprised by how much I dug it. A big reason for that is the pacing and the plot elements, which Yaitanes juggles well to keep the viewer engaged in what’s happening on the screen. He strikes the right balance between dialogue to move the story forward, and action scenes that help to raise the stakes for the characters.

And those scenes are quite fantastic. From a stylistic standpoint, the action is fun in that melting pot sort of way, when American productions shamelessly ape the blueprints that 1980s Hong Kong flicks provided for both martial arts fights and brainless Western-style shoot-outs. The opening scene of the film owes a lot to the first warehouse gunfight in John Woo’s 1992 film, Hard Boiled, with Nick dropping into the scenery like Chow Yun-fat, and concludes with enough spent shotgun casings to fill a swimming pool. (This is not a complaint; it was a great way to kick off the film). Until the gun-crazy climax, the prison is the backdrop for a number of fights featuring hand-to-hand combat. For me, there were two big stand-outs. Nick and Mr. Clean have their epic disgruntled roommate throw-down and later on, Adams has a brawl in the shower with a gang of thugs that finds him using a towel to counteract their over-aggressive strikes. Does his own towel remain firmly in place despite constant, violent movement? Perhaps to the disappointment of Bradley fangirls and fanboys everywhere, it does.


The supporting cast here was spot-on, with colorful and occasionally strange characters. I could watch Napier bark at subordinates pretty much all day, and he has an especially hammy line while firing twin uzis during a prison riot that had me rolling. Vernon Wells is in prime check-cashing form as the barely lucid prison sage with a Mike Tyson face tattoo, Galaxy 500. Yuji Okumoto, who most will remember as Chozen from the Karate Kid II, is dastardly in that fun movie villain sort of way -- you can tell he’s having a ball in his role. Even the faces I didn’t know were convincing in their characters. Jim Maniaci is amazing as Mr. Clean. Clabe Hartley is an actor about whom I know very little, but he’s apparently moved on from his acting career to work as a successful restaurateur in Venice, California. Somewhat famously, he was involved in separate violent altercations at his restaurant with homeless locals in 2015 -- one bit off part of his finger, and another, just six months later, concussed him with a chair. Who knew the L.A. restaurant business was more dangerous than a David Bradley action movie?

VERDICT

Before I watched Hard Justice, I thought I had all the answers. That I’d already had my fill of chopsocky prison films. That another Charles Napier prison warden role was one too many. That I didn’t need Vernon Wells adorned in a bad face tattoo with a name ripped off from a Boston-based dream-pop band. Hard Justice showed me how bitter and close-minded I had become as an action movie fan. It's over-the-top in a way that so few action films attempt at all, and it bears its influences without a whiff of self-awareness. Very hard recommend.

AVAILABILITY

Netflix, Amazon, eBay.

6 / 7


4.27.2016

Fists of Iron (1995)

PLOT: A single dad with an engineering degree who works as an auto mechanic decides to pursue underground kickboxing after his friend is killed. Will his drunken has-been trainers teach him enough to avoid a similar fate?

Director: Richard W. Munchkin
Writers: Sean Dash
Cast: Michael Worth, Marshall Teague, Sam Jones, Eric Lee, Matthias Hues, Jenilee Harrison, Nicholas Hill, Lelagi Togisala, Michael DeLano, Art Camacho, Nick Koga


 

PLOT THICKENER 

Recent reports indicate that nearly half of college graduates got their first job outside their field of study. Taking a longer view, around one-third of college graduates will never work in the field in which they pursued their degree. I myself went to school for alternative medicine and now I work in the legal field. Hmm, or did I go to school and partake in self-medicating which wasn’t legal? It’s all a bit foggy (much like my dorm room at the time). The central character in 1995’s Fists of Iron may have wasted his college years by getting some newfangled engineering degree, but his job as an auto mechanic gives him enough money to live on the beach (in a mobile home), drink like a connoisseur (at a dive bar), and buy expensive clothes (baggy silk shirts and suspenders). Take that, higher education!

Dale (Worth) is the young and single father to an adolescent daughter. Things with his ex-lady didn’t work out, but Dale is a stand-up guy who made sacrifices to give his daughter a stable environment. He sold a business to help put his ex and his daughter in a proper home, while he lives the dream of residing in a mobile home on the beach like Riggs in Lethal Weapon. He makes his living as an ace mechanic during the day, and spends many of his evenings at a local watering hole with his best friend, Matt (Hill), getting into skirmishes with drunken riffraff. While attending a kickboxing event at the sprawling estate of a local fight promoter, the devious Peter Gallagher (Teague), Dale playfully reminds his pal of all the fighting he’s done on his behalf. Matt’s pride gets the better of him, and when a $2,000 open challenge to survive two minutes with Gallagher’s prized monster Victor Bragg (Hues) is announced, Matt is the first to throw his name in the hat. Surprisingly, he lasts the requisite 120 seconds and takes the cash prize home, but not without cuts, lumps, and internal bleeding to go along with it.


While recouping on the beach outside of Dale’s house, Matt succumbs to his injuries during a nap. Furious and filled with remorse over the death of his childhood friend, Dale does what anyone would do: he goes to the bar to get drunk. While there, he fends off a disgruntled customer from his car garage and then confronts two old-timers who were purportedly once fighters but now like to cut loose and observe instead of engage: Daniel (Lee) and Tyler (Jones). Dale asks them for their help so he can take on Gallagher and his fighters, but they rebuke this silly notion, and Tyler even stops Dale’s punch bare-handed when the young upstart gets frustrated. Because this is a 1990s kickboxing film, this resistance only lasts for about another 10 minutes. Before you know it, the pair of former fighters are instilling their wisdom in a fresh young fighter who’s gifted, as Tyler puts it, with “an iron fist.”


Due to this being such a cookie-cutter subgenre, I was prepared to hit the snooze button on this but was surprised at how much I enjoyed the film. The hero is sympathetic given his circumstances, Marshall Teague plays a terrific and dickish villain in Gallagher, and Sam Jones and Eric Lee have great chemistry with each other and with their trainee. This is one of those cases where a film becomes more than the sum of its parts because the performances are spot-on, and there's some humor peppered throughout to make these characters relatable. Sure, there are missteps. All of Gallagher’s fighters are dressed up in the most unintimidating K-Mart-level ring gear I’ve ever seen. It really undercuts the brutality of the monstrous Victor Bragg when he’s dressed in the same loose, star-print pants and matching cut-off sweatshirt that my mom used to wear to her aerobics class. The screenwriter went a bit too heavy on exposition-heavy dialogue at times, leading to some clunky, unnatural exchanges between characters. But when a movie features a line as unabashedly 1990s as “see the girls in the flowered vests to place your bets,” it’s hard not to jump on the bandwagon despite some flaws.



In an odd bit of serendipity, we’ve now covered consecutive films featuring actresses from the television show, Dallas. Jenilee Harrison -- who famously replaced Suzanne Somers on Three’s Company and played Jamie Ewing on Dallas -- appears here as a love interest to the story’s hero, much like her Dallas colleague Charlene Tilton did in Deadly Bet (see prior post). The tangled web doesn’t stop weaving there! The actress who replaced Harrison on Three’s Company, Priscilla Barnes, appeared in Talons of the Eagle as -- who would have guessed it? -- the hero’s love interest. Before he appeared in the Kickboxer sequels as David Sloane, Sasha Mitchell played the illegitimate son of J.R. Ewing on Dallas. Andrew Stevens -- who co-starred with Karen Sheperd in Blood Chase and directed Don Wilson in Virtual Combat -- played a hustler working for J.R. Ewing. Will the chopsocky film connections to Dallas ever end? More likely, it will puzzle and enthrall researchers for centuries.


Fight choreographer Art Camacho and director Richard Munchkin have worked together eight times, starting with 1991’s Ring of Fire and ending in 2004 in one of those hilarious chimpanzee action films. Either as a result of their cinematic chemistry or the efforts of a crafty second unit director, the fight scenes in Fists of Iron look quite good. Fighters' heads and the punches that hit them snap with intensity. Just about every fight is lively, with striking and countering combinations that make sense. Different fighters have distinctive styles and their abilities are showcased by camera angles that allow the choreography to breathe. Worth’s character tests his mettle against a variety of fighting mini-bosses, all the way up to his climactic fight with Hues’s heavy-hitting behemoth. Their match is fairly entertaining while still maintaining some semblance of believability -- the strategic advice dispensed by Dale’s teachers is actually deployed in the fight itself (and by extension, the choreography) and all too often, films fail to stick to this formula. Combine that with plenty of cutaway shots to people in the crowd dressed in the finest threads this era had to offer, and I’m a happy viewer.

VERDICT

Some will gloss over the plot of Fists of Iron and conclude, “another post, another kickboxing tournament film,” and they wouldn’t be wrong. The main difference between this film from many others with a similar story, is that this film has a lot of heart. It also has a bruised spleen, broken ribs, and cauliflower ear. The fight scenes are fun, the dynamic between the hero and his teachers is entertaining, and the film has some of the most amazingly weird underground fight tournament crowd shots I’ve ever seen. Dig it.

AVAILABILITY

Amazon, eBay.

4.5 / 7

 

4.12.2016

Deadly Bet (1992)

PLOT: A drunken, degenerate, kickboxing gambler must overcome his vices to regain his self-esteem, his money, and the woman he loves. But mostly, his money.

Director: Richard W. Munchkin
Writer: Joseph Merhi, Robert Tiffe
Cast: Jeff Wincott, Steven Vincent Leigh, Charlene Tilton, Michael Delano, Mike Toney, Ian Jacklin, Gerald Okamura, Ron Hall, Gary Daniels





PLOT THICKENER

I’ve only been there once, but I can say from experience that when Las Vegas puts its hooks in you, it can be hard to break free. One minute you’re walking around on the casino floor, slack-jawed and overstimulated, and the next minute you’re $2,000 in the red, wondering where it all went wrong and why you’re wearing mismatched sneakers. (Don’t ask). Director Richard Munchkin and PM Entertainment honcho Joseph Merhi originally met in the City of Lights, so it’s no wonder that Vegas was often featured as a setting in many PM films. In 1992’s Deadly Bet, it’s also the antagonist.


Angelo (Wincott) and Isabella (Tilton) are a young couple on the verge of a move, trading the neon of Las Vegas for the natural wild of Colorado. This particular night finds them exchanging a hearty goodbye with Isabella’s lounge-singer brother, Frank (real-life entertainer Jerry Tiffe) before Angelo announces that he needs to settle a debt of $1,000. The creditor in this situation is Rico (Leigh) a suave fight promoter and fighter who gives Angelo the chance to settle the debt by taking a new bet on two fighters currently in the ring. Angelo’s fighter wins! The couple celebrates over drinks! A steamed Rico finds them later in the evening and challenges Angelo to a fight for even more money. This time Angelo not only loses, but made the foolish mistake of putting Isabella up as collateral. She begrudgingly goes home with Rico, but not before slapping Angelo in the face for his dumb deeds and broken promises.

Broken, alone, and flat-broke, Angelo must decide between two paths. One: cease gambling, get sober, and win back everything that he’s lost. Two: get shit-faced, owe more people even more money that he doesn’t have, and act like a total asshole. As you can probably guess, he spends a lot of time in this story stumbling down path #2 before he reverses course to take the first one. Along the way, he bets on college basketball, drinks whisky, sniffs the clothing Isabella left behind, and is forced into working as muscle for a bookie named Greek (Delano), who oddly decides not to go by "The Greek," perhaps because he's not really Greek. Neither was The Greek though!


This wasn’t Wincott’s first time at the chopsocky rodeo -- see Martial Law II -- but it would mark his first time as the leading actor in your standard 1990s kickboxing tournament feature. It also marked his last time in this sort of movie, which might demonstrate that you can only go so far working in that sub-subgenre. Much to my surprise, this was also the first of only two films he did with PM Entertainment, the other being 1996’s Last Man Standing, which I maintain is one of their top three films ever. This is just further evidence that unlike a lot of chopsocky stars who stay in their lane, Jeff Wincott is full of surprises. He attended the prom in Prom Night. He did a romantic comedy with Adrien Brody. He even beat up Dave Matthews. Not surprisingly, Wincott is the best part about this movie, and I say this as someone who is perversely obsessed with Zubaz pants and poorly lit action scenes.

The action scenes are fine by PM Entertainment standards, which is to say, 'poor' by 1980s Hong Kong standards and 'borderline genius' by 1960s Star Trek episode standards. For me, there were two stand-out fights worth mentioning. The random alley confrontation between Angelo and a group of thugs led by stunt stalwart Art Camacho is punctuated by some humorous dialogue where Angelo details his losses from that day before fighting off his would-be muggers. It made sense in the context of the plot and added a light, self-aware touch to the hero’s circumstances. The other fight of significance is the climactic blow-off between Rico and Angelo. It has drama, some blood, and decent kicks that make both fighters look competent, but the fight is also preceded by one of the most blatantly homoerotic pre-match stare-downs I’ve ever seen. Apropos of nothing, Angelo decides to jump up on the top rope in his corner in a split-legged position while flexing, and Rico’s face lights up like he just got served a plate of filet mignon after two months of forced Tofurky dinners. While the tone is not exactly foreign to a genre where muscular dudes beat the shit out of each other, it was a weird moment.


We’ve seen some wacky tournament fighting before, but the tournament featured in Deadly Bet stretches the laws of time, fashion, and even spelling. Greek tells Angelo it’s a 50-man tournament. OK then. The tournament then unfolds over the course of a single night. I hate to drop math on you guys, but assuming it’s a single elimination tournament, 50 fighters means 49 matches. How the hell are you going to get through 49 matches in one night? The sartorial choices add further confusion to the proceedings. Some of the fighters, Angelo included, don the unfortunate combination of bike shorts with white cross-trainers, giving this tournament the appearance of uncool dads fighting each other to exhaustion. And last, one of the people keeping tabs on the brackets spells Rico’s name wrong on the whiteboard. Whoever organized this tournament (hint: it was Rico) performed no quality control whatsoever, and really should have hired an event planner.

Regardless of the significance of their roles, there are plenty of faces in the film that will be familiar to fans of action b-movies. Gary Daniels shows up for a brief, non-speaking role as the fighter who wins Angelo a bunch of Rico’s money to set the plot in motion. Ron Hall took a small part as a tournament fighter. Ian Jacklin shows up as a shaggy bartender who tangles with Angelo over unpaid debts to Greek. And even Gerald Okamura (listed in the credits as his Irish doppelgänger, Gerald O'Hamura) gets in the ring for an underground fight -- and wins!  Didn’t catch James Lew or Al Leong anywhere, but there *was* a scene where Isabella visits a hair salon. Maybe they were getting their hair did.

VERDICT

Deadly Bet is one of several love letters from PM Entertainment to the city of Las Vegas. But instead of affectionate words, the letter is actually just a 47-page storyboard of Jeff Wincott repeatedly kicking motherfuckers in the face. The boozy, sin-soaked Vegas kickboxing film seems to be an actual THING (recall To Be the Best) and I’m going to chase down more movies like this one.

AVAILABILITY 

Amazon, eBay.

4 / 7


3.24.2016

Virtual Combat (1995)


PLOT: In the future, a scientific breakthrough leads to a breakdown in the barrier between virtual reality and the physical world, where computer programs are equipped with human bodies and run amok. What science has wrought, only kicks, guns, and double-stomps to the chest can destroy.

Director: Andrew Stevens
Writer: William C. Martell
Cast: Don “The Dragon” Wilson, Athena Massey, Michael Bernardo, Dawn Ann Billings, Michael Dorn, Loren Avedon, Ken McLeod, Ron Barker





PLOT THICKENER

When direct-to-video martial arts filmmakers started experimenting with science fiction elements during the late 1980s and early 90s, more often than not, the results were, as the French say, “le merde crachin.” With Jean-Claude Van Damme finding success in movies like Universal Soldier and Timecop, the blueprint for the DTV crowd was set, and the smaller studios played mix-and-match with elements from big-budget futuristic productions in which they could let their various martial artist stars run wild. When the dust settled, there were a number of cinematic ambassadors for the sub-subgenre: Olivier Gruner (Nemesis, Automatic); Richard Norton (Hyper Space, Equalizer 2000); and Don “The Dragon” Wilson (Future Kick, Cyber Tracker). I almost feel like I’ve written this exact paragraph before -- is this current Brezdin returning from the past with old copy? Or is it old Brezdin traveling from the past and writing a post while current Brezdin is away on vacation? And why am I suddenly getting a nosebleed? Trying to make your fiction all sciencey just screws things up, and Don the Dragon knows from experience.


In the future, credits have replaced currency. Los Angeles crime has been supplanted by Los Angeles pacifism. And fighting and screwing has largely been replaced by strapping yourself into a giant gyroscope (i.e., aerotrim) and experiencing it inside a virtual reality (VR) program under the supervision of some keyboard jockey. David Quarry (Wilson) and his partner John (McLeod) are members of the grid runners, a security force tasked with defending the “grid” between Los Angeles and Las Vegas from threats both virtual and physical. When a scientist has a major breakthrough in cyberplastic theory, a local evil corporation stands to profit. What they didn’t count on, however, is that the same computer process that can create physical manifestations from cybersex characters, can also be used to bring virtual killers from the “Lethal Combat” fight simulator into the physical world. When a glitch in the system does exactly that, and an elite but egomaniacal fighter named Dante (Bernardo) is set loose in the physical world, the line between virtual and tangible may be forever erased.


Just like the cyberplastic goo in which the virtual reality characters come to life, this film was a warm and slippery mess that’s toxic to pets and small children. A lot of the plot elements and visual gags are straight rips from better science-fiction films like Demolition Man, Virtuosity, and T2: Judgment Day. However, I loved how shameless the filmmakers were about this pilfering and the  world-building that resulted from it. The movie portends the proliferation of the voice-commanded, personalized mobile assistant that retrieves any information you could want (here, it’s called “Mary”). It has programmable sex cyborgs, cyberterrorism, and virtual reality gaming. Looking around now at the emergence of technologies like Oculus, Siri, and Echo, I’m shocked at how much our world is beginning to resemble the one depicted in a friggin’ Don the Dragon Wilson movie. Will buzz cuts and pomade be outlawed in the future? Because for reasons unknown, the hair in this movie is huge and unkempt. Bernardo has always rocked the long locks, but Wilson, McLeod, and Avedon are all rocking some shaggy cuts in a production that had plenty of humidity but clearly lacked an on-set barber or even a single brush or comb.


This film came at an odd point in Loren Avedon’s filmography, one that we might objectively call a downturn in activity. Virtual Combat was sandwiched between 1994’s Operation Golden Phoenix, where he played bad guy Ivan Jones, and 1996’s Safety Zone, an obscure Canadian film that appears to have been released in Greece but nowhere else. While we might point to his role in Operation… as igniting a trend towards playing villains, a closer examination reveals that his turn as Michael Branson, the dickish kickboxer in the 1993’s Baywatch episode, “Kicks,” was the starting point. Avedon has spoken of his fondness for playing villains because they can act without rules, but his character of Parness is more of a corporate underling who lacks any real autonomy. It was also tough to see Avedon’s personality shine through here; he has a natural cockiness that I’ve always found enjoyable in his heroic roles, so it’d make sense to turn that trait up to 11 as a villain. Yet, Parness lacks any clear personality traits or motivations beyond those instilled by his employers. Overall, I felt let down with how he was used in this film, but thankfully, Avedon has a couple of scenes with Wilson and we get a solid fight between the two towards the climax.

On the whole, the action in the film is that solid brand of chopsocky one would expect in a film where Art Camacho is listed as the fight choreographer. That said, I’m not sure he got the most out of the talent here -- the fight between Wilson and Avedon is good, but given their styles I would have expected something with better pace and more wide angles -- the filmmakers relied way too much on close shots and it robs the audience of any sense of movement. Bernardo is a talented guy but I didn’t really see the Dante character as head-and-shoulders above everyone else in terms of skill -- he wields some limb-regeneration trickery straight from the T-1000 toolkit -- but if we’re to believe that he’s a VR program capable of learning the tendencies of its opponents, he needed to seem more invincible and adaptable. (And how David throws a glitch in the Dante matrix is head-scratching). All that said, this film gave me Loren Avedon firing laser beams and a good amount of kicking, so I can’t complain much about the action.


Now for my biggest issue with the film. Virtual Combat employs that weird trope of having Actor A (strong voice) perform all of the dialgoue for Actor B (weak voice) but instead of having Actor A move his mouth and then dubbing him in post-production, the filmmaker uses Michael Dorn’s disembodied voice-of-God dialogue over shots of Bernardo contorting his face to look like he’s thinking out loud. We love Dorn -- he has a great voice, he played Worf, he flies jets. And if you remember Shootfighter: Fight to the Death -- and let’s be honest, who doesn’t? -- Bernardo wasn’t exactly Isaac Hayes in the vocal talent department. On the contrary, he falls into that camp of screen fighters who unfortunately lack the ability to project effectively, doomed to “nice guy” supporting parts because they still sound like teenagers when they open their mouths. Teenagers who haven’t tasted whiskey or smoked a cigarette. Has Jeff Wincott ever been dubbed? Nope, and there's a reason for that. (Wincott Chainsmoking Method wins again). Anyways, this Dorn cover-up makes practical sense and the technique works on paper because it’s a futuristic science-fiction film where we can buy the idea of Dante’s telepathic outbursts. In execution, though, it comes off as overly goofy because the other “dimensionalized” VR clones talk with their own mouths and their own voices, and for some strange reason, the filmmakers included Bernardo’s natural grunts and groans during the fight scenes. The inconsistency undermines the approach, but I look forward to creating a series of supercuts where I dub Dante with dialogue from Skeletor, Zod from Superman II, and Ursula from The Little Mermaid. I might not be joking.

VERDICT

The VR fight simulation angle is interesting, if overly coincidental, given that Expect No Mercy came out the same year, but the intermingling of the tangible and the virtual is what makes Virtual Combat the slightly more novel of the two. This may be the closest that DTV chopsocky ever got to touching upon David Cronenberg’s recurring theme of technology merging with the human body, and it certainly reinforced the notion that he executes that theme better than almost any other filmmaker. I would have liked to see a better use of the supporting cast, but I always get a kick out of seeing what 90s films thought the technological world might look like in only a few decades’ time.

AVAILABILITY

A bit hard to find. VHS is your best bet.

3.5 / 7

3.07.2016

Blood Ring (1991)

PLOT: An American fighter in Manila is forced to put down the bottle and take up arms (and fists) against the evil fight promoters who killed his friend. Bad timing too, because he just signed up for a mail-order membership to a “Godawful Cheap Vodka of the Month” club.

Director: Teddy Page (as Irvin Johnson)
Writer: Ron Davies
Cast: Dale Cook, Don Nakaya Nielsen, Andrea Lamatsch, Ned Hourani, Jim Gaines, Nick Nicholson, Steve Tartalia, Cris Aguilar


PLOT THICKENER

As a huge fan of Mark Hartley’s Not Quite Hollywood, the 2008 documentary that blew the doors open on Australian exploitation film for the mainstream, I was really looking forward to his 2010 follow-up that focused on the Philippines, Machete Maidens Unleashed. You can imagine my surprise, then, when the film reached the end credits with nary a mention of the important part that the chopsocky subgenre and its many stars played in the Filipino film industry of the 1980s and early 90s. Everyone from Richard Norton and Jerry Trimble to Loren Avedon and Don Wilson went for at least one go-round in Manila, and in a sense, starring in a Filipino actioner as a Westerner meant that your star power had reach and cachet.


Or, more simply: you were an accomplished kickboxer. The Filipino film industry -- particularly filmmakers like Cirio Santiago and Teddy Page -- loved kickboxers of every stripe. Dale “Apollo” Cook, who started kickboxing professionally in the late 1970s and saw his fight career last nearly two decades, was one of the few American-born stars whose film work (nine movies in all) was almost entirely limited to the Philippines (save for one part as a jerkward foreign devil in the 1992 Hong Kong film, Deadend of Besiegers). Cook may have lacked the dramatic chops or swagger to make it as an action star Stateside, but he had an easygoing, American-as-apple-pie vibe that Filipino action films, for whatever reason, seemed to really dig. 1991's Blood Ring was just his second film and the first of four films in which he would star with Teddy Page in the director's seat. It was also the film title most often confused for a sausage product.

In the world of underground Manila kickboxing, tickets may be cheap but life is even cheaper. (The beer is still expensive). Promoters use up and discard their fighters as often as they change their t-shirts. Max Rivers (Cook) is your typical burnout drunk, fighting and throwing fights in exchange for booze money from his sleazy promoter, Dingo. When Max’s fighter pal, Philip (Tartalia), goes missing, his girlfriend, Susan (Lamatsch) brings the news to Max, hoping that he can help. Philip has been trying to get out from under the thumb of his own promoter, the evil Caruleo (Nielsen), by betting on himself to lose fights. In exchange for these efforts, Philip gets “released from his contract” which is a formal way of saying that Caruleo beats him to death. (Wouldn’t you know it? Caruleo is a kickboxer too).


The reach and cruelty of Caruleo’s gang spreads far and wide. His main hatchet man is Stevens (Gaines), a coke-addicted creep in molester glasses whose enjoyment of violence is matched only by his love for nose candy. While Caruleo oversees many expert fighters -- including a beefed-up weirdo in a mask called D’Executioner (Aguilar) -- his most prized subject is Madigan (Hourani), a kickboxer with bountiful chest hair who can’t be trusted with any dialogue whatsoever. As Max gears up to infiltrate and destroy the gang who killed his friend, he’ll not only need to defeat each of these mini-bosses on the way to Caruleo, but he’ll also have to fight his raging addiction to booze on the road to sobriety.

There is little to no production sheen to Teddy Page’s films, and Blood Ring is no different. You can’t go into Filipino action films from this era with any expectation of technical mastery because you’ll walk away more disappointed than Steven Seagal after the food court Cinnabon has closed for the day. (Not fatshaming here, BTW -- Seagal just really loves Cinnabons). The plot here is simple, if stale, but the bad blood between the hero and his enemies is sufficient to carry us through the film. If you’ve seen a few of these early 90s Filipino chopsocky films -- Fighting Spirit and Blood Hands in particular -- you’ll recognize not just the filming locations, but also the cast of faces. The Jim Moss-Nick Nicholson-Jim Gaines triumvirate is back and in full effect -- all three have supporting parts -- but it was interesting to see Gaines get the baton as the baddie with the most screen-time. As the drug-addled rapist flunky, Stevens, he’s pretty good at capturing his character’s cowardly and sleazy qualities.


If Billy Blanks is the “casual Friday” of chopsocky b-movie stars with his denim ensembles and button-up shirts, then Dale Cook and his plain-tank tops or polos with sweatpants is definitely the “working from home” model. It’s not something exclusive to his character in Blood Ring, either, because he was rocking similar threads in American Kickboxer 2. You might remember from our conversation with Loren Avedon that on the chopsocky film set -- when you’re kicking, punching, and stunting for up to 12 hours a day -- comfort is key. So, maybe there’s a method to Cook’s sartorial madness, as plain and borderline sloppy as it might appear. Or maybe he was decades ahead of his time, as evidenced by the uptick in high-end sweats worn to premiere events and basketball games by everyone from Drake to Bieber. Oscar Isaac spent pretty much all of his screen time in Ex Machina wearing sweatpants and getting shitfaced. If it’s good enough for a tech genius in a top 10 film of the year, why isn’t it good enough for a kickboxer running around Manila and beating the shit out of crooked gangsters and fight promoters?


The real question though: do the sweatpants make a difference in the quality of the fight scenes? Beats the hell out of me. Cook moves well, and you can definitely tell he’s a pro fighter. The training montage in the back-half of the film finds him doing full-extension kicks in waist-deep water -- athletically speaking, that’s insane. He looks best when paired with other legit fighters (e.g. Hourani) as opposed to the standard stunt players, and his climactic fight with Nielsen (himself a former pro kickboxer) is pretty solid. The choreography is simple and the camerawork is average, but the atmosphere -- dark arena, ropes wrapped in barbed wire, and cavernous echoes -- is a cut above your traditional “two dudes kickfighting in a boxing ring” showdown. There’s a lot of blood, a pretty gruesome ending, and even Susan gets in on the action by swinging through the air (she’s tied up per the “damsel in distress” trope) and delivering a timely double-kick to the bad guy. Again, none of it will necessarily blow you away but I appreciated that they put some custom touches on the formula.

VERDICT

It’s undoubtedly cheap and occasionally sleazy. It’s plenty of other excessive adverbs combined with adjectives typically associated with Filipino exploitation films -- take your pick, man. It’s got all the customary markers: subpar acting, doofy plot, poor lighting, crazy stunts, and a library music score. Does Blood Ring rise above it all and deliver the goods in spite of itself? It sort of depends on your threshold for technically unsound cinema and your appreciation for Oklahoman kickboxers. Fortunately, I have both in spades, so I thought it was a breezy 90 minutes. Solid pick for those Saturday afternoons when you don’t want to change out of your tank top and sweatpants.

AVAILABILITY

It never made the jump to DVD (R1 anyway), so used VHS copies on Amazon or eBay are probably your best bet.

3 / 7

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