4.23.2014

Final Impact (1992)

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




PLOT THICKENER
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. 

VERDICT
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.

AVAILABILITY
Netflix, Amazon, YouTube.

4 / 7

4.13.2014

Angelfist (1993)

PLOT: When her kickboxing covert agent sister is mysteriously murdered in the Philippines, an American cop heads overseas to bring the killers to justice. Contrary to popular belief, justice is not a hip upscale Manila restaurant, but rather a fair and reasonable application of law.

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






PLOT THICKENER
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.

VERDICT
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.

AVAILABILITY
Angelfist is at the ready on DVD or VHS.

4 / 7


3.31.2014

Night of the Kickfighters (1988)

aka Night Raiders

The month of March found the members of the Mysterious Order of the Skeleton Suit trading guest posts, podcast appearances, and in a few cases, illegal imported cigarettes and throwing stars! Our compadre, Denis from The Horror!? was kind enough to watch this 1988 AIP film and write a review for us. He's really earned that complimentary pair of Zubaz pants and the denim vest with the dragon patch on the back!

The company of Carl McMann (Adam “the gosh-darn Batman” West) has developed a shiny new laser cannon ideal for blowing away motionless jet models located on cardboard-looking pedestals. The technical innovation also includes a wondrous microchip that can recognize allied soldiers by their “eye prints”, cleverly even when they have turned their backs towards the laser cannon, though not while they are wearing sunglasses; nobody involved cares about civilians, it seems. However, as it always is when SCIENCE is making the Free World™ better at killing, those evil terrorists are there to mess things up.


Evil terrorist Kedesha (Marcia Karr) takes valuable time off from her various family friendly sexual perversions and lets her henchmen – among them the mandatory weird-looking big strong guy in form of Ponti (Carel Struycken) and his inspired grimaces – kidnap McMann’s daughter Kathy (Lisa Alpert). McMann gives out the data about the laser Kedesha wants from him, but he also hires international man of adventure Brett Cady (Andy Bauman) to find Kedesha, save his daughter and blow the complex (aka a series of grey corridors located in the desert) they’re in as well as the laser data to kingdom come.

Because Brett already had his ass kicked by Ponti once, he goes the seven samurai way and calls in a troupe of friends and business associates as his own private kick-fighting strike force. With a team consisting of computer wiz Clea (Phyllis Doyle), mandatory person of colour Socrates (Fitz Houston), hairy explosives and gadget man Bomber (Michelangelo Kowalski), and “British” stage magician Aldo (Philip Dore), all ready for a stealthy night assault on the Mexican base, evil terrorism won’t stand a chance.


Initially, the main claim Night of the Kickfighters had on my interest was the fact that it was distributed by the glorious Action International Pictures (still the only company I know which actually wanted to be confused with Arkoff’s and Nicholson’s AIP), the finest purveyors of direct-to-video nonsense. Now, after I’ve finally seen it, I’m quite a bit more focused on the film’s adorably silly mixture of low cost Eurospy stylings, Men’s Adventure pulp novel fixations, and part-time martial arts adventure. It’s the sort of thing I can’t help but describe with words like “adorable” and “charming”, because, while it certainly won’t thrill anyone with its exciting plotting, its poetic fight choreography or its brilliant acting, Night is a film very eager to please, putting all its negligible money and talent right on screen with verve and a sense of excitement that just doesn’t care how silly everything going on here actually is.


So how silly is it? Well, there’s a scene that sees Kedesha (and her oh so brilliant accent) dressed down to what might be very sparkly underwear or an equally sparkly bathing suit, writhing on a couch while cuddling with a snake, getting a foot massage by a nameless henchman, and being fed grapes by Ponti, which not only demonstrates how far out of its way the film goes in presenting her as of dubious sexual proclivities (she also likes to play with blood) while still keeping the movie breast-free, but is also one of the more inexplicable things I’ve seen in a movie in quite some time, unless the aim of the scene was to fulfill some producer’s very particular fetish wishes. During the course of the movie, we also encounter nunchuks that shoot bullets, a microwave glass tube for humans, blow-up dinosaurs, a heat-seeking explosive crossbow quarrel, and henchmen making a prescient impression of being time-travelling henchmen out of later stealth based video games, only lacking big yellow exclamation points over their heads; the line “must have been rats”, alas, is missing too.

These moments and little flourishes of reality-deprived nonsense run through nearly every scene of the film, with little happening in Night of the Kickfighters that actually makes sense going by our human logic or the rules of the real world (place of horrors), resulting in a film that can’t help but entertain through the sheer power of its willful imagination, and the absolute shamelessness it shows in putting it on screen, with no thought spent on yawn-inducing nonsense like “ironic distance”.


Surprisingly enough, the action itself is comparatively copious, and decently filmed by first-time (and only-time) director Buddy Reyes. At least, Reyes knows enough about filmmaking to keep his camera moving, giving the film a lively, if messy and cheap feel. Because we demand that sort of thing, there are a handful of explosions, two car chases (the first one rather awkward thanks to the inclusion of a luxury limousine as the chased vehicle), and some mild martial arts fights that do indeed have a kick to punch ratio of 5:1, just as the film’s better title promises.


On the acting side, I found myself rather unimpressed with Andy Bauman’s impression of a moving wooden doll, but Struycken’s truly inspired grimacing and Karr’s all-around impressive scenery-chewing that seems to interpret “femme fatale” in ways oh so patently right in being patently wrong, more than make up for this minor matter.

The resulting film is a beautiful, inspired (by drugs, alcohol or just the unbridled human spirit) thing, lacking even a single dull second. Or, to quote our dear friend Bomber: “Fuckin’ A!”

-- Denis Klotz

3.23.2014

Dragon Fury (1995)

PLOT: In the future, a mysterious disease is wiping out the human population. A violent, fascist medical dictatorship is making millions in profit despite their completely ineffective cure serum. One brave warrior must travel backwards through time to undo their misdeeds. Based on the epic GlaxoSmithKline fan-fiction novel of the same name.

Director: David Heavener
Writer: David Heavener
Cast: Robert Chapin, TJ Storm, Richard Lynch, Chona Jason, Rick Tain, Chuck Loch, Sean P. Donahue


PLOT THICKENER
Cinematically speaking, time travel is a tough subject to pull off. There are almost always plot holes or flimsy layers of scientific logic that beg explanation but can’t be adequately articulated on screen without coming off as ham-handed or expository. The universe of Back to the Future handled it well enough, and 2004’s Primer was an interesting exercise in how the fabric of the universe could be bent on a micro-budget. David Heavener’s 1995 film, Dragon Fury takes a slightly different approach by skirting any question you could have about the logic underpinning its science fiction elements. When you ask how the time machine works, someone gets topless. When you ask why characters are behaving in a particular way, someone gets decapitated. When you ask how time travel will affect people and events, this film hands you an aspirin for the future headache that will occur from going into the past. Of course.


Mason (Chapin) is a rogue warrior in a near-future dystopia who trusts no one but his girlfriend, Regina (Jason), and his close friend, the eccentric doctor, Milton (Loch). The latter has recently uncovered an evil plot from the past that explains the dire state of the present. And he has the brittle newspaper clippings to prove it! Apparently, an organization called the AAMA manufactured some disease in some lab some time in the late 1990s and killed a whistleblowing doctor before the truth got out. Since that time, they’ve been making serious dough by distributing a placebo serum that does nothing to curb the spread of the disease. These big-pharma buttholes are led by “chief medical dictator” Vestor (Lynch) and his band of merry men called the Dragons. Mason was trained as a Dragon and managed to escape before being completely brainwashed, but their treachery haunts him on the regular.


After some intense discussion (<5 minutes) Mason wants Milton to send him to the past to fetch the real cure to save humanity. Milton obliges, gives Mason an aspirin for the post-trip headache, straps his homeboy to some tubing, and sends him through space and time to late-90s Los Angeles. We know this because there are strobe lights, smoke, and occasional screaming, then a jump cut. Regina follows suit, but unfortunately, Vestor shows up shortly thereafter with his head goons. He forces Milton to send Fullock (Storm) and Henchman #2 back through time as well, and the chase is on. Will Mason locate the cure by the time the time portal re-opens? Will he be confused by the past's untorn shirts? The large cell phones? The startling lack of hoverboards?

For a quick and dirty list, here is what the post-apocalypse of Dragon Fury has to offer: fog, disease, torn t-shirts, sword fights, dirty robes, motorcycles, chokers with cock-rings, expensive bread, undercuts, and homing devices that turn into swords but look like vibrators. Here’s what it doesn’t have: adequate lighting, readily available firearms, oil drum fires, endangered water supplies, studded leather, lasers, or decent healthcare.


Beyond his brief cameo as a nerdy newlywed, David Heavener also contributes as the film’s director and writer. This is his sixth film, and I would shudder at any insinuation that this is his best effort. The post-apocalyptic costumes are lame even by b-movie standards, the villains are undercooked, the plot is meandering and silly, and the fights lack any sense of drama or danger for the most part. Some of the stunt set pieces, both large and small, are fairly competent though. Take a look through the credits and you’ll see the name of Parole Violators star, Sean Donahue, who served as the film’s stunt coordinator. He dons silly wigs, falls down flights of stairs, and does all of the little things that great stunt work ethic encompasses. I wouldn’t go so far as to call him the MVP of the film, but you could argue that he served the cinematic equivalent of James Posey on the 2008 Boston Celtics: a valuable role player without whom a championship would not be possible. In this case, that championship is The Best 1995 Film Bearing the Name “Dragon Fury.” (This film went undefeated).


Frankly, I was a little surprised to find that T.J. Storm had made so few appearances in films we’ve reviewed thus far. It *seems* like the dude is in everything. That said, the man best remembered around these parts for getting tricked into painting a garage and getting punched by Bolo Yeung during a solo dance sequence, is featured here as the main heavy, Fullock. Heavener seemed to have a clear idea that he wanted the character to be an Arnie-aping, man-of-few-lines, T-800-esque automaton. Storm is a little goofy at times, but I can’t blame him for the lack of engaging characterization. He’s hulking, throws some intense glares, and carries himself well during fight scenes. Seriously big hair, too.

Even if a film’s plot is silly and the sole ownership of acting chops resides with Richard Lynch and his ~72 hours on the set, not all is lost. Great or even good film fights can go a long way in raising the quality of the overall product. Lack of urgency notwithstanding, the fights here were okay, though it’s certainly a case where the energy level outstripped the choreography. The sword fights were bloodless duds, but Storm in particular looks good during his hand-to-hand fight scenes, and he and Chapin have a nice chemistry together. The fight settings are not particularly varied, though. Underpasses, L.A. concrete, parking garages, and warehouses are (once again) the most dangerous places around if you’re trying to avoid a martial arts fight.


VERDICT
The vast majority of b-level martial arts films have steered clear of time travel, with good reason. It can be a heady scientific story element probably best left to polished science-fiction genre filmmakers like Robert Zemeckis and Shane Carruth. However, I’m glad that Heavener decided that the ethics and philosophy of time travel could be conveniently discarded as long as you had plenty of tubing and strobe lights at your disposal. Fleeting moments of enjoyable absurdity or lively fights, but mostly forgettable.

AVAILABILITY
For hard copies on Ebay or Amazon, VHS is your only format option. The film is also freely available through Troma’s channel on YouTube.

3 / 7 


2.27.2014

Soul Brothers of Kung Fu on the Gentlemen's Blog


There's no point in sugarcoating it: this is going to be one of those blog posts where I briefly describe a movie review that I've posted somewhere else. This time, we've got 1977's Soul Brothers of Kung Fu, aka Last Strike, aka Kung Fu Avengers on tap over on the Gentlemen's Blog to Midnite Cinema. The idea was to dive into the filmography of American great Carl Scott, but instead we found ourselves knee-deep in a surprisingly enjoyable entry in the Bruceploitation genre where Scott was more of a support player. Usually, I'd be all, "WTF Yi-Jung Hua?" but I was satisfied with the silliness, gore, and unexpected appearances from Lo Meng and Yuen Biao. Still worth a watch (of the uncut version)! Look out for additional Carl Scott coverage over there during the next couple of months: all told, it's like a three-month subscription to a sausage-of-the-month club where someone has replaced the sausage with online reviews of Carl Scott movies, which science proves are way healthier. I'm not going to play nutrition police with my faithful readers, but I want to see you healthy and active into your golden years.
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