Contemporary Gladiator (1989)

PLOT: A kickboxing karate-fighting college drop-out attempts to establish his identity in both the material and spiritual worlds. He can also get you a great deal on shag carpeting.

Director: Anthony Elmore
Writer: Anthony Elmore
Cast: Anthony Elmore, George M. Young, Julius Dorsey, Donny Bumpus, Traci Cloyd

Of all the adjectives one could pick to describe super-heavyweight kickboxing champion Anthony “Amp” Elmore, sincere would have to be at the top of the list. His 1989 film Contemporary Gladiator (also known as Iron Justice) was his only cinematic effort, and while we can speculate about the reasons for that, no one can deny that Elmore made a personal and genuine film. Not unlike low-budget vanity projects such as City Dragon and Miami Connection, Contemporary Gladiator situates its star’s personal worldview against a variety of roadblocks and internal conflicts. Whereas Stan Derain believed tank-tops and bad rapping could score lots of chicks, and Kim believed taekwondo was the key to success and happiness, Elmore’s dream was to “sell kickboxing to the world.”

Even the biggest dreams have humble beginnings. Anthony plays a vague version of himself as a struggling college student and dedicated martial artist empowered by Afrocentrist politics during what appears to 1970s Memphis (the afro haircut and dashiki were giveaways). He lives with his adoring mother and controlling father, the latter of whom sees his politics and hobbies as one big waste of time. Anthony finds comfort in his all-black karate school but it’s intense, as evidenced by his final black belt test where he’s required to punch the floor. “Floor not hit back,” you might say. To which I’d respond, “oh, have you ever punched a floor? Because that shit fucking hurts.”

As the turbulent 1970s give way to the consumerist 1980s, Anthony has traded in college politics and his dashiki for a suit and a career as a successful carpet salesman. He owns a house, has a loyal girlfriend, and he even got a new haircut. He still practices karate, and wins a first-place trophy in a contact tournament. When he brings the prize back home to his karate school, though, his sensei (Dorsey) embarrasses him in front of the entire class, beating him without mercy and literally stripping him of his black belt for fighting competitively. Not long after that, his girlfriend breaks off their relationship. Anthony finds himself at his lowest emotional point.

He doesn’t seek answers to his troubles at the bottom of a bottle. Nor does he run through the wide open field of loose women. He finds himself in the company of someone who does both, though. Kingfish (Young) is a local shit-talker, hustler, and apparent friend of Anthony’s family. After he wakes up hungover on Anthony’s couch and watches a few kickboxing matches with him, he promotes himself to the position of Anthony's spiritual adviser and de facto manager. In no time at all, the pair are united in a mission to turn Memphis into a hotbed of championship kickboxing. Will Anthony turn his dream of establishing kickboxing as a serious sport into reality? Will Kingfish succeed in his desire to turn Anthony’s dream into a never-ending parade of fat asses? (His words, not mine).

Damn, where to start? No discussion of Contemporary Gladiator can end without noting the contributions of George M. Young as Kingfish, the horniest spiritual adviser in the history of cinema. He chases skirts, he cuts great promos, and he even sings the national anthem. The fight scenes -- almost all of which take place in the ring -- appear to be taken from actual fight footage from Elmore’s career. That said, there’s not much creative choreography of which to speak. The lighting is mostly horrendous, and the ADR is entirely horrendous -- it sounds like it was recorded at the bottom of the ocean. There’s also an odd fixation on mixing music in over scenes of dialogue and the result is (usually) an undecipherable mess. In news that should surprise no one, I loved it.

Elmore is a kickboxer first, a Buddhist second, and an actor probably eighth or ninth. I can’t decide if this is a compliment, because there might be lots of things he considers himself before actor comes up (e.g. water color painter? good bowler? fun dad?) All of this is to say his acting isn’t great and has the markings of a rushed production and someone trying to remember his lines instead of using inflection to suggest human emotion. This trait isn’t unique to Elmore but I found it was most egregious with him. Some might be interested to know that in the years since this film, Elmore has embraced the Internet and fortified his online presence with a fairly prolific YouTube channel through which he publishes music videos, his old kickboxing matches, serious lectures on Afrocentric Buddhism, and this very film. Happy hunting!

This is a movie which teaches us that even if your father hates your lifestyle choices, and your karate teacher threatens homicide over your accomplishments, and your girlfriend sees no future with you, and everyone around you disagrees with everything you do except for a mildly perverted alcoholic spiritual adviser, you should still pursue whatever you want. I think most of us find these circumstances relatable. 

It’s no technical marvel but Contemporary Gladiator joins the ranks of other films which had no business being as entertaining as they were. Created during a time when the only thing that prevented champion kickboxers from appearing in movies was sheer will, this is a unique artifact from a strange era. Recommended for adventurous viewers. 

YouTube and Amazon (VHS).

3.5 / 7


Karate Cop (1991)

PLOT: John Travis is the last known honest cop stuck in a futuristic, post apocalyptic America while trying to retain some order in whatever is left in his god forsaken town.

Director: Alan Roberts
Writers: Denny Grayson, Ronald L. Marchini and Billy Zide
Cast: Ronald L. Marchini, Carrie Chambers, Michael E. Bristow, D.W. Landingham and David Carradine.

PLOT THICKENER: In a broken-down society where it's every man for himself, there's only one man who can instil order and that man is John Travis AKA Karate Cop (Marchini). And while he is instilling this so-called order, he saves a young woman named Rachel (Chambers) and learns that she is the leader of the 'Freebies'. You may be wondering what the hell are the 'Freebies'? -- and no, it isn't that cheap toy you get in a Happy Meal (that might be better). The 'Freebies' are a group of kids who resemble The Goonies or the lost boys from Peter Pan if you covered them in mud, dirt, and anything else that can be found in a post apocalyptic wasteland (or your backyard). Essentially, they're  freedom fighters. In exchange for hot food and a motorbike, John takes on the neighbourhood gang run by Lincoln (Landingham). His gang of fighters and roughnecks make the Jets and the Sharks from West Side Story look like actual badasses. Sure, they may look muddy, ugly and all that is required to be in a gang, but they're just, well...lame.

Is there good fight choreography in this film? It's okay, but I think it's below average. Maybe it's because of the editing, or that they were just trying to make all the fighters look like brawlers.  I felt a little underwhelmed by the quantity of the fighting too, I was actually hoping for a lot more. With "Karate" in the main title, I was hoping for actual Karate-ing. Instead, I got dialogue that didn't need to be there as well as dead pan acting. Okay, okay -- I didn't go into this thinking I was going to get decent acting...but at least TRY! I find these kinds of films a ton more entertaining when the actors make an honest attempt at drama. I will take my hat off to Landingham, though, because while his character was annoying, you can tell he was really trying to get involved into his role despite the fact his costume was probably pissing him off more than anything.

I think the most interesting things in this film were the set pieces. The whole time I was watching this, I was thinking of all the different film sets it reminded me of, and which films I'd possibly seen them in. After a while, I stopped actively paying attention to the plot... oh wait, what plot? But the set pieces were kind of interesting as well as funny, because they reminded me of an old amusement park which closed down crossed with those really bad film sets that look like the same tiny room. So, they use the same set over and over again and move props around to make it look different. You're not fooling anyone, guys.

If you're a big fan of the low-budget action films out there and you've seen this, you would have definitely noticed that the music used throughout the film is used in hundreds of other films out around the same time. Whenever I heard the music, different fight scenes from other films came into my head and again distracted me.

Over the years Karate Cop has produced a cult following, especially since it's a slight rip-off of better post-apocalyptic films like 1990: Bronx Warriors and Escape from New York. But while those two films have charismatic performances, some hilarious dialogue and exceptionally badass scenes, Karate Cop was below average. It doesn't have the 'schlock' vibe that I look for in these kinds of films. It was on the right track in terms of the look and you can see the budget constraints, so I understand that. However, almost everything else fell flat, and overall it was dull experience.


1 / 7


Furious (1984)

PLOT: A grieving martial artist does battle with a group of wizards and new-wave music enthusiasts for control of the universe. All participants are paid in delicious fried chicken for their efforts.

Directors: Tim Everitt, Tom Sartori
Writers: Tim Everitt, Tom Sartori
Cast: Simon Rhee, Philip Rhee, Arlene Montano, Howard Jackson, Mika Elkan, Loren Avedon, Peter Malota

Jodorowsky. Buñuel. Lynch. “All psychomagical hypnotist meditators and coffee drinkers?” you ask. Close, but no! They’re filmmakers responsible for some of the most transgressive surrealist works in cinema history. Based on his work in 1984’s Furious, Tim Everitt may have had an eye on adding his name to this list. His debut feature film lacks the epistemological heft of Holy Mountain or the fever-dream duality of Mulholland Drive, but make no mistake: Everitt was not afraid to feed your head with the weirdly random thunder. He’ll give you five straight minutes of old women eating chicken while a man in a kabuki mask performs magic tricks for a baby and a shirtless man twirls swords around in the back of a dimly-lit restaurant. And you’ll like it.

After a warrior named Kim (Montano) is chased into the mountains by white dudes in Mongol warrior garb making melodic nature calls lifted from Doug McKenzie, a brief skirmish leads to tragedy. The hooligans seek a powerful navigational tusk (think of a saber-tooth with GPS) that may or may not point the way to the so-called Astral Plane, and Kim was simply caught holding it at the wrong time. To her credit, Kim doesn’t make the theft easy for them, fighting off one fighter with a staff and hitting another in the lower-lumbar / upper-ass area with his own throwing star. Pretty demoralizing, though not as bad as actually dying.

Kim’s martial artist brother, Simon (Simon Rhee), lives in an isolated woodland cabin, teaches martial arts to an eager group of adoloscents, and even has a dog. All in all, life is good. When he learns of his sister’s demise, everything goes to hell. He immediately beats the shit out of an outdoor heavy bag in front of his confused students and then storms off to seek guidance from his master, Chan (Phillip Rhee). The older, wiser Chan lives and works in an office building and oversees a dojo, but spends most of his time meditating while floating three feet off the ground or learning new sleight-of-hand magic tricks from his right-hand dude, Mika (Elkan). Noting his protege’s grief, he gifts him with a mysterious pendant and some philosphical claptrap before sending him off on a wild goose chase for spiritual enlightenment. This is odd, because the office building is filled with chickens. You following so far?

Good, I’m glad that’s out of the way. Now, take everything I just told you about the plot of this film and throw it in the garbage along with the leftover macaroni-and-cheese you forgot to refrigerate overnight. Some of this stuff definitely happened, but it’s a patchwork story interspersed with fight scenes and in-camera effects. Watch, rinse, and repeat, because you’ll (arguably) benefit from a few viewings and come up with all sorts of theories. That said, anyone approaching this film and hoping for highly inventive TKD action will come away disappointed. The fight scenes, while passable for a 1984 American movie, seem a little loose and under-rehearsed, no doubt a consequence of a micro-budget and rushed shooting schedule. Where the fights succeed is in their energy, frequency, and pure silliness. Enemies throw cardboard boxes from rooftops, restaurant combatants throw bowls of rice at each other, and fireballs turn into chickens mid-flight. Who cares if you don’t get crisp choreography with intricate combinations and epic build-up? This has Simon Rhee fighting a goddamn papier-mâché dragon with a skeleton clenched in its teeth.

Last summer, I was a guest on the GGTMC podcast where we reviewed this film, and while we had a ball discussing the zany elements of Furious, we found it was a slippery movie to discuss given its disjointed story and lack of dialogue. For fans of the genre who are tired of needlessly talky movies filled with exposition, you’re in for a treat. The first line of dialogue -- “All right...” -- comes around the 12-minute mark. Now, the dialogue may not be as sparse as say, Castaway or All is Lost, but even for a 73-minute film, there’s not a whole lot of conversation here to move the plot forward. Everitt instead uses a lot of surreal visuals with uncomfortably long stretches of silence to build the story’s framework, and leaves the audience to fill in the rest. Somehow, for this type of film, it works more often than not.

Furious is significant for a lot of reasons -- chickens, talking pigs, a flaming skeleton -- but it also marked the film debut of Loren Avedon. As a student of Jun Chong and Phillip Rhee, he was one among many advanced students who made an appearance as a henchman -- Double Impact’s spur-heeled villain, Peter Malota, also appears -- but you’d be hard pressed to pick him out given the generic costumes and grainy look of the film. In my correspondence with Loren, he himself couldn’t recall the specific scene in which he appeared. (He would go on to have a similarly fleeting appearance in L.A. Streetfighters, but was at least identifiable). Here, I had no clue though. Devo henchman? Restaurant patron? Chicken handler? Who knows?

This was not a film where much footage was left on the cutting room floor and you get the feeling that the filmmakers needed to use or repurpose everything they captured on camera. Filmed in less than a week’s time, Furious bears a very “kitchen-sink” feel informed by visual non-sequiturs, a limited inventory of ridiculous props, and a wonderfully absurd plot. There are some highly unconventional ideas at play here and this is likely to be the most original (if not the most technically adept) martial arts b-movie you’ll see this year. Highly recommended.

Near-impossible to find in its distributed physical form (VHS). A previously available VHS rip was yanked from YouTube based on a copyright claim from the director himself. In isolation, this guarantees almost nothing, but I’m hopeful that this means Everitt was reasserting control over his intellectual property for a proper home video release.

6 / 7


Kickboxer 2: The Road Back (1991)

PLOT: David Sloan is a former kickboxing champion who owns a run-down gym but along the way meets some shady characters trying to get him out of retirement...and they will do ANYTHING it takes do so.

Director: Albert Pyun
Writer: David S. Goyer
Cast: Sasha Mitchell, Dennis Chan, Peter Boyle, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Michel Qissi, John Diehl, Vince Murdocco, Heather McComb.

PLOT THICKENER: Here we have David Sloan (Mitchell), the centrepiece of this film, and not to mention Eric and Kurt's younger brother. But as you have probably realised by now, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dennis Alexio won't be making a quick cameo in this sequel. Why, you ask? Well, it's simple--they were murdered. Yep, the Nok Su Cow and the paraplegic former kickboxing champ were gunned down by none other than the deliciously evil Tong Po (Qissi). David also has an up-and-coming fighter named Brian (Murdocco), who is one ass-kicking away from being a douche-bag of a fighter with a greasy slicked back pony-tail. He believes he's ready to turn professional despite David's advice on him being far from it. An argument starts, forcing Brian to turn to the dark side of the force by running into the arms of dodgy fight promoter Mr. Maciah (Boyle).

David is forced out of retirement by the same sleazy fighting promoter to fight their current champ, and what do you know guys? Their paper champion loses to David. Not only that, but David announces after his win to an arena full of people that these promoters are crooked. Humiliated, embarrassed, and downright pissed, they respond the only way they know how: setting fire to his gym, the one place he finds solace in the world...those bastards. Beaten, burnt, and broken, David is stuck in hospital and feeling disheartened, upset, and angry, but it's going to be okay because we can insert the philosophy and comedic timing of Uncle Xian (Chan) from the previous installment. Xian can see David is out on his luck so he decides to retrain him using simple techniques to help him rehabilitate.

Now that we have the positive chi pumping, the film is going to teach you a lesson on 'Deliciously Evil Fighting Plans 101', and what better teacher to have than Sanga, played by Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa? He knows that Maciah is trying to train Brian up to be a champion, all with the help of aggressive trainers and steroids (you may have flashbacks to a certain training montage from Rocky IV on that one). But Sanga also knows that Brian will be a perfect guinea pig in his plan on winning back the honour of disgraced fighter Tong Po.

Brian is now feeling the roid rage, you can see he is so close to getting that greased up pony-tail and the cockiness (which was previously shown by Eric Sloan) is in full swing so let's see Brian kick ass...oh but wait! Sliiiiiiight change of plan in his first professional fight -- his original opponent has pulled out but he has a replacement. Our new contestant loves kicking down cement pillars with his bare legs, paralysing fighters to give them a reality check or to kill them (whichever's easier at the time) and he has a strong fashion sense when it comes to long braids and red Muay Thai shorts -- please welcome Tong Po.

Now the question is: who will win? Brian, who is pumped full of so many steroids that he actually thinks he can kill Tong Po? Or Tong Po, who has a track record for killing, paralysing and violating anything that comes into his path? That was a dumb question wasn't it? So, Tong Po humiliates Brian and to be honest, I am kinda glad he did -- we now have once less douche-bag in the cinematic universe. And who can resist seeing Tong Po give a good beat down to some arrogant prick? I know I can't!

Do I enjoy the end fight scene? Yes, I do, but I feel that there should have been a bigger pay off. They had an entire arena practically to themselves -- no crowd, no reporters -- so why not go all out? I feel that the ending was rushed, and I can understand that they probably didn't have a bigger budget since the main star from the first film wasn't appearing in this. But fans of the original definitely would have all rented this film in the 90s, without a doubt. I know my mum let my older brother and I rent this...great parenting, right?

Overall, I enjoy this film, as it does pay homage to the first but it definitely has its own look. While the film does seem a tad bit rushed at the best of times, I can't deny that I enjoy it.  Even though this film is somewhat funny at times, you cannot deny that it does have heart, and that is what makes me appreciate it. I really wish Sasha Mitchell could have been in more films, because I do like his acting style -- it's very light, it's not trying to be overly serious, you can see that he knows his strengths and he makes the most of what he has. I also love that they included Dennis Chan in this film, as he brings a lot of depth to the film as well as great comedic timing; his cheeky demeanour really does light up the screen. And what does one say about Michel Qissi's performance as Tong Po? He is still badass, the less talking he does, the better. His menacing look is enough to make you want to run and hide; that is what makes a great villain. It does have decent choreography but I wish they really could have showcased that a bit more -- you can definitely see the director was trying to concentrate more on the story than the violence.

And special mention must go to the opening song 'My Brother's Eyes,' by Eric Barnett. I loved that this is what the film opened with, because it gives you a taste of what is expected to come with the film's core. And not only that, as the song is playing it pans across David Sloan's gym and you see photos of him and his brothers...yep I'm a sucker for that stuff.

Amazon and Ebay.

5 / 7


American Streetfighter (1992)

PLOT: A successful businessman leaves the lap of luxury to save his estranged younger brother from an underground kickboxing ring. Unfortunately, the airline screwed up and he’s really pissed about having to fly coach along the way.

Director: Steve Austin
Writer: David Huey
Cast: Gary Daniels, Ian Jacklin, Gerald Okamura, Roger Yuan, Tracy Dali, Kent Ducanon, Andrew Cooper

“Youth is wasted on the young,” said George Bernard Shaw, a man I once believed to be a curmudgeonly dickhead. It wasn’t until I turned into one myself that I discovered he was totally right! Young people have boundless energy and opportunities but spend most of their days finding ways to fuck it up. The bubble of youth is the best time to make those mistakes, though. American Streetfighter, a 1992 Silver Screen movie starring Gary Daniels, explores this idea of youthful indiscretion and the relationships that suffer as a result. It also answers the age-old question: is a funeral parlor a good setting for a samurai sword fight?

As evidenced by his tassled leather jacket, acid wash jeans, and poor decision making, Jake Tanner (Daniels) is a young punk mixed up with the wrong crowd. After he and his fellow gang member, Ito (Yuan), rig up a jukebox with explosives to damage a local business, they realize innocent people were inside! They run back to save them, but the hapless potential victims are packing heat and open fire. Jake escapes with his life, but Ito is shot dead. To be more accurate, Jake drives off after Ito is shot, but still alive. Because Jake drove off, Ito is stuck waiting around to be shot again.

Years later, Jake has moved on to bigger and better things in his new life in Hong Kong. Leather jackets and unkempt locks have given way to power suits and a greasy ponytail. His shitty getaway car has evolved into a shitty office with a drop ceiling and poor lighting. Dead business deals have replaced dead friends. During a late night at the office, he receives a troubling phone call from his mother: Randy is in trouble. Wait, who’s Randy? Oh right, the younger brother in the picture Jake is now holding.

Randy (Jacklin), is a rising star in the world of underground fighting. When Jake arrives after his latest fight to discourage this behavior, Randy rejects the advice. After all, Jake ran away following his own transgressions and left his sibling alone to fend for himself during his formative years.

A shrewd businessman if there ever was one, Jake approaches the fight circuit boss, Ogawa (Okamura) and asks to buy out Randy’s contract. When Ogawa rebuffs, Jake instead offers to take Randy’s place as a fighter-by-proxy. For reasons known only to screenwriter David Huey, Ogawa totally goes for it. Jake gets his ass handed to him in his first competitive fight -- even suffering the indignity of being repeatedly whipped with a car antenna -- and retreats to the home of his master’s daughter, Rose (Dali), to lick his wounds. While there, he goes through a rigorous rehabilitation program under the supervision of Rose’s adolescent son, whose martial arts knowledge is informed by his rabid Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fandom. Once he’s fully healed, Jake is joined by his master, Nick (Ducanon) and they take the fight to Ogawa’s gang.

If you know his work, the involvement of Expert Weapon’s director, Steven Austin doesn’t inspire much confidence. In fact, if the films I’ve reviewed were holiday desserts, King of the Kickboxers is a delicious pecan pie at the high end of the spectrum, whereas Expert Weapon would be a pile of stale-ass pizzelles or plum pudding. (For continued debate around weak-ass holiday desserts, please leave your thoughts in the comments). This film isn’t nearly as rough as the aforementioned Ian Jacklin joint, but it lacks technical polish -- the soundtrack appears to have been lifted from a mix of 80s porn and an SNK fighting game ported to a 16-bit console -- and the pacing is fairly wonky. Fight circuit backdrop: plastic sheeting and gaudy light colors. The action: occasionally competent but weirdly edited and choreographed. The dialogue: just nevermind, OK? The movie definitely gets points for the feathered locks of Gary Daniels but I don’t think we should give Austin credit for that. (Unless he did hair and make-up. I’ll need to consult the production credits again to confirm).

Out of at least three Daniels films, this is the third in which he’s been drugged or otherwise had his mental acuities compromised. While Daniels needs to keep a better eye on his drink, I suppose putting your martial arts hero on drugs is the logical extension of the “drunken master” trope popularized and codified by Hong Kong kung fu cinema of yesteryear. That said, what drugs would make for the best martial arts movie? Weed would turn any serious fight film into a stoner comedy, so that has crossover appeal. Heroin is too prone to overdose. I’d have to think that something like meth or crack cocaine would yield the best product. If the hero in "Return of the Supreme Crackhead Master" seems too invincible, just put all of the bad guys on bath salts and have them eat the master’s face for the inciting incident. This shit practically writes itself.

This film nips around the edges of some solid and trashy action, but it comes in drips and drabs. The underground fight scenes are comical -- Ian Jacklin’s youthful arrogance is characterized by him flexing his muscles with exaggerated grunts after he strikes (“flex fighting”) --  but also slow and awkward. The same can be said of the stunt work. During a climactic scene involving henchmen on dirt bikes, we see one of the most disproportionately cruel and protracted retaliations by a hero in the history of cinema. After a snazzy dirt bike entrance, a henchman is tossed from his bike, pummeled to the ground, covered in gasoline, and then set ablaze via Zippo by the grizzled, eyepatch-wearing Nick. The whole scene transpired over what seemed like hours and would be right at home in a Videodrome telecast. Then there’s that funeral parlor sword fight, which is plodding despite the inspired mise-en-scene. Remember kids: not even a samurai sword can make a short-sleeve shirt and tie combo look cool.

American Streetfighter is a fight film made on the cheap and punctuated by occasional quirks. The choreographed violence is frequent and often over-the-top (see: aforementioned funeral parlor sword fight). There are curious character ticks galore, a totally hamfisted subplot about dead kickboxers, and more socially awkward moments than at a food packaging convention. (I have no proof, but I’ve always assumed this industry is full of weirdos). The movie works as a cinematic curiosity, but is probably for Daniels and Jacklin completists only.

Amazon, EBay, Netflix.

3 / 7
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