5.25.2015

Recoil (1998)

PLOT: After a bank robbery, cops kill one of the robbers. The robber turns out to be the son of a gangster. This makes his daddy awful unhappy and so he decides to kill all the cops involved. What he wasn't counting on, though, was that two of them would accidentally not get killed. These two men would set out to accidentally not get killed as long as possible. In the meantime, there is a not a single car or helicopter in the city that won't blow up.

Director: Art Camacho
Writer: Art Camacho, Gary Preston Jr.
Cast: Gary Daniels, Gregory McKinney, Thomas Kopache


PLOT THICKENER
I think this may very well be the best PM Entertainment film the company ever produced. At the very least, it is in the top five. This is one of the best films of its type that you'll ever see. Okay? Good. We're done here.

If you really must know more, you should know that this film works so well, I believe, for three reasons. First, it is directed by the great Art Camacho. Sure, a glance at Camacho's directorial efforts shows us that he is responsible for such fare as Little Bigfoot and Magic Kid. However, Camacho in the director's seat is great news because of the second point: action director Spiro Razatos.


Spiro Razatos as action director with stuntman Art Camacho in the director's chair means that the stunts and action sequences in this film are stellar. Really incredible stuff. There are a handful of really big scenes that must have been incredibly difficult to pull off. This is a film that knows what its audience wants and it does that thing better than just about anyone could, which brings me to the third point: Recoil is a very formulaic film.

That might sound contradictory. However, all PM Entertainment films are essentially formulaic. What sets Recoil apart is that it sticks to the formula for the entire running time. There is an opening bank robbery/car chase scene that lasts for about a third of the runtime. After that, we learn the very bare essentials about who the characters are and then there's another action set piece. The entire film is like that. It never strays from this formula and it never stops throwing cars and helicopters at you and blowing them to smithereens.


Probably the sole criticism of the film is that Gary Daniels does not get much of an opportunity to flex his martial arts skills until the final third but, when he does, it is very well choreographed and shot because, again, this is an Art Camacho film and he understands such things. Daniels very capably handles the action but, truly, the stars of this film are Spiro Razatos and Art Camacho.

VERDICT
If someone were to ask me why I watch these DTV action flicks, Recoil is one of the films I would show them. It gets almost everything right and almost nothing wrong and it is a window to a time in cinematic history that, sadly, just does not exist anymore. It sticks to the wild action set pieces and stunts that are the reason we watch these movies and it doesn't do anything else at all. Thank God.
-- Review by Craig McNeely

AVAILABILITY
Netflix, Amazon, YouTube.

7 / 7


5.10.2015

Weapons of Death (1981)

PLOT: When his sister is kidnapped by a group of hired hoodlums working for a crime boss, a martial arts instructor must save her. But he won’t do it alone. His martial arts pals come along to provide fighting expertise, and his deadbeat father comes along to provide awkward emotions and dad-strength.

Director: Paul Kyriazi
Writer: Paul Kyriazi
Cast: Eric Lee, Louis Bailey, Gerald Okamura, Bob Ramos, Ralph Castellanos, Alan Gin, Paul Kyriazi, Garrick Huey, Joshua Johnson, Gina Lau



PLOT THICKENER
In the right hands, almost any everyday object -- car keys, a doorknob, a stale baguette -- can become a weapon. We‘ve seen this lesson repeated in countless 1980s self defense videos. In the hands of trained martial artists, though, these objects become even more dangerous. What would happen then, if you gave these same martial artists swords and spears instead of pineapples and hardcover books? For the answer, we turn to Paul Kyriazi’s 1981 film, Weapons of Death.

It seems almost far-fetched now, but there was once a time when San Francisco was filled with leather bars and martial arts schools instead of unaffordable housing and tech startups. Grizzled bikers brushed shoulders with liberal activists. And somewhere in the hills of Marin County, Danny Tanner was probably laying the foundation for his reign of terror. Our story begins in the dusty confines of one of the city’s scummiest booze joints, where a down-on-his-luck drunk named Carter (Bailey) gets bailed out of a raucous bar fight by his old troublemaking pal, Bishop (Castellanos). Fortune smiles upon Carter when Bishop offers him a spot on a team running a special sort of errand for local crime boss, Foon (Gin).


Upon meeting the gangster at his hide-out in the desert near the woods (!?) they’re tasked with kidnapping the daughter of a Chinatown businesswoman, Sue-Lin (Leemoi), who has refused to pay Foon protection money. Her oldest son, Eric (Lee), runs a martial arts school, her youngest son David (Huey) is a skilled archer, and her daughter Angela (Nancy Lee) rarely speaks but giggles a lot. They’re all over the age of 16, so you’d expect them to have real jobs or at least more promising career paths, but alas -- this is what often happens when fathers skip out on their family responsibilities. (No offense to you shitty dads out there).

Despite the best efforts of this fighting family, the band of mercenaries invade their home and kidnap Angela. During the confusion, Eric is distracted by Foon’s main muscle, Chong (Okamura), not just because he’s confused by Chong’s black leather and turtleneck in 70-degree weather, but because Chong is a really good fighter! You’d expect him to overheat in those threads but he presents a fierce challenge to Eric in short time, foreshadowing a climactic showdown. In the aftermath, Eric wants to pursue the goons immediately with David and martial arts friends, Joshua (Johnson) and Paul (Kyriazi), but Mama Bear has other plans: she’s calling her old flame, Curt (Ramos) for support.


As Eric and company gear up to track down his sister and her kidnappers, the addition of Curt becomes something of an emotional monkey-wrench in these plans. This is the man who skipped out on his mother. A person whose crude remarks and flippant prejudice grate everyone around him. A man whose fondness for Hawaiian shirts is a crime against fashion. Eric isn’t the only one contending with internal conflict as he heads into battle, though. Joshua is skittish about the lethal force this situation will require. David doesn’t completely trust his archery skills. Paul is contemplating his supporting second-banana status in this mission despite the fact that Angela is supposedly his girlfriend. Such issues are no easier for the kidnappers. Carter needs the money, but his heart might be too pure for this brand of crime. Foon's squad of lady ninjas are more than happy to fight, but will they turn their weapons against the obvious gender pay gap that only serves to inflame a tense work environment? Overall, Kyriazi does a good job injecting his characters with believable motivations, and there’s even a fairly sordid family twist as we approach the conclusion.

But are there any actual weapons of death in Weapons of Death?



Yes. So many goddamn weapons of death. In a throwback to the American Western, Paul opts for the six shooter. Despite some initial hesitation, Joshua warms up to the lethal length and pointy death of the spear. David loves the sniper-like precision of his bow-and-arrow, and Eric can fill both hands with swords like few others. At various points, enemies wield guns, knives, and swords, and Chong even breaks out the dreaded tiger claw for the climax fight. Kyriazi does well by placing these weapon selections in context throughout the film, and the various callbacks and character development we see while the characters use them was a nice touch. Going into a film like this from an era when martial arts movies were very hit-or-miss, I couldn’t shake the suspicion that the film wouldn’t live up to its actual title. Thankfully, the filmmakers deliver. The orchestral score adds an epic feel to the exterior fight scenes and the action has room to breathe for the most part.

Eric Lee has had a long and productive Hollywood career performing stunts and acting in supporting roles. Fortunately, he’s the centerpiece here and despite some occasionally clunky line delivery, he’s a total house of fire. His character is jaded by his upbringing and turned reactive and violent by the circumstances, but he also has a cool toughness as evidenced by an early sword lesson to his kung fu students (“a sloppy mental attitude turns into a sloppy sword”), and a legitimately tense scene where he dares David to shoot an arrow at a target which he happens to be holding inches from his face. He’s not quite Martin Riggs levels of crazy, but the characterization was a far cry from the jokester I’ve seen in other films, and he gets plenty of scenes to show off the fighting skill that made him one of martial arts’ most famous kata champions.



VERDICT
Like a limp body flying over the bar and smashing only the bottom-shelf vodka, this movie comes out of nowhere to surprise and delight. This is the sort of drive-in fare that passed me by due to generational differences, but I’d always stumble upon during weekend afternoons on cable TV. Exploitation-era men-on-a-mission kung-fu throwdown in the woods… on a budget. Recommended.

AVAILABILITY
View it online at YouTube or try to find a hard copy on Amazon.

4 / 7


4.21.2015

Firepower (1993)

PLOT: In the far-future of 2007, crime is out of control. So out of control that cities have transformed into "Hell Zones" where criminals run the show. Gary Daniels and Chad McQueen are two cops who aren't afraid to clean the streets and they'll use all the explosions and kickfighting needed to make that happen.

Director: Richard Pepin
Writer: Michael January
Cast: Chad McQueen, Gary Daniels, Art Camacho, Jim "Warrior" Hellwig, Gerald Okamura



PLOT THICKENER
There is a hierarchy in the world of cinematic martial artists -- indicative of budget more than quality. At the top of the list, you've got your JCVDs and your Seagals and Norrises. Below that, there's the Lamases and Wilsons and Rothrocks. The list goes down, all the way down, to someone like Ron Marchini, who is the bologna sandwich of the kickfighting world. Somewhere in the second or third tier, always threatening to storm his way to the top, is Mr. Gary Daniels. When given the right material, Daniels really shines and he is clearly an accomplished martial artist.  Problem is, he is often put in films with less capable performers. Enter Chad McQueen and Firepower.


Daniels and McQueen play cops Nick Sledge and Darren Braniff, respectively. This is a PM Entertainment film, and one of the better ones at that, so it opens with a car chase and things blow up. McQueen and Daniels bring in their man, played by Jim Hellwig (wrestler The Ultimate Warrior) but it doesn't take The Ultimate Warrior's criminal buddies long to break him out of jail because, again, this is PM Entertainment and we need to throw some punches and blow stuff up.


This leads us, as all things do eventually, to a martial arts death cage tournament. It is here that we learn that The Ultimate Warrior goes by the moniker The Swordsman. (All the contestants in the tournament have names like that. For instance, the great Art Camacho plays The Viper) The biggest problem with this movie, as I said before, is that Gary Daniels plays second fiddle to the far inferior Chad McQueen. However, when Daniels or Camacho or Ultimate Warrior are on screen, this film is pretty much as good as it gets for DTV action fare.

Many action films have actors that should not speak. The Ultimate Warrior is one of those actors. Fortunately, I don't believe he has a single line throughout the entire film. He grunts and growls and looks menacing but, wisely, does not speak. Gary Daniels has all the brilliantly cheesy lines that you hope he will. Chad McQueen is what I'd imagine would happen if Tom Sizemore and Garth Brooks had a baby. We've got kicks and punches, we've got helicopters and car crashes, we've got lasers. And really, do we need anything else?


VERDICT
Firepower is surprising in that it is probably exactly as good as you expect it to be if you know your DTV action cinema. There would only be a handful more Gary Daniels films better than this and many, many worse ones. The same can be said for PM Entertainment. They were not often able to deliver on their promises but when they did, it's about as good as this genre gets. Solid fighting, solid action, solid villain, solid Gary Daniels.

-- Review by Craig McNeely

AVAILABILITY
Netflix, Amazon, YouTube.

5 / 7


4.08.2015

Only the Strong (1993)

PLOT: A former military man returns to his old high school to find that teen delinquents reign supreme. He hopes to transform a dozen of the school’s worst offenders with an experimental class in the Brazilian martial art of capoeira. If that doesn’t work? Jazzercise.

Director: Sheldon Lettich
Writer: Sheldon Lettich, Luis Esteban
Cast: Mark Dacascos, Geoffrey Lewis, Paco Christian Prieto, Stacey Travis, Richard Coca, Roman Cardwell, Jeffrey Anderson-Gunter



PLOT THICKENER
There’s a moment in 1999’s Zoolander where fashion designer Mugatu, played by Will Ferrell, leans towards a colleague during a climactic (and cheesy) showdown and blurts, “they’re break-dance fighting.” As performance elements, dancing and fighting for the screen are more closely related than at first glance. Dance-like rhythm was a style marker in Chang Cheh’s fight choreography for his Shaw Bros. films. (And Jackie Chan might say the same about his own work). Revered action stars from Cheng Pei Pei to Michelle Yeoh and Moon Lee relied on their years of dance training in lieu of formal martial arts experience to perform their early action film roles. Regardless of whether “dance fighting” is an actual thing -- it’s not! -- those who lurk in the DTV shadows most likely got their introduction to it with 1993’s Only the Strong.

Following a tour of duty in Brazil, a United States Green Beret named Lewis Stevens (Dacascos) is honorably discharged, and then returns to his hometown of Miami, Florida. As one is want to do after a few years of military service, he visits his former high school teacher and mentor, Mr. Kerrigan (Lewis) on the job. What he sees shocks him: kids are carrying weapons, ignoring authority, getting into fights, and even dealing that sweet Bolivian marching powder. When he encounters an escalating conflict between a student and his drug-dealing older sibling (Anderson-Gunter) on school grounds, Lewis is prodded into action and shows off capoeira skills that both astound and intrigue.


Following the incident, Kerrigan goes to his peers during a teachers meeting with a proposal. Since none of their efforts to discipline or teach the students has worked, he wants to hand over the classroom reigns to Lewis for an off-campus course in capoeira. Despite some initial hesitation among the group, Kerrigan wins their approval and is cleaning up a shithole firehouse with Lewis before you can say, “weird subject matter for a montage.”

The dozen students assigned to the course are as bad as their reputations. They blare music from ghetto blasters, they wield furious mullets, and they even wear baggy pants! After a short period of adjustment, though, they’ve gone from scowling to dancing (in capoeira, the ginga). From pulling knives, to pulling each other off the ground without further incident after accidentally kicking each other in the face. From dressing like punks to dressing like male models in a Banana Republic catalog photo for casual beach wear. (Capri pants will never look tough, but at least the students look comfortable wearing them). For the moment, Lewis’s methods are working.



Old habits die hard, though. The most unpredictable of the students, Orlando (Coca), is having a difficult time walking away from the easy money that his uncle, Silverio (Prieto) provides to him through work at the local chop shop. Try as he might, Lewis has no luck in talking sense into Silverio either, despite the slumlord’s admiration for his capoeira skills. As posturing turns to violence, how will Lewis protect his new students? What about his old high school flame turned forward-thinking teacher, Dianna (Travis)? Or his mentor, Kerrigan, who’s a tough old bastard, but let’s face it, shouldn’t be messing with gangbangers? Better yet, how will Lewis protect the sanctity of the classroom and alternative teaching methods for future generations? Yes -- there’s that much riding on this.

Few chopsocky villains have taken so much interest in accelerating urban decay in his city as the treacherous Silverio. A cross between Vega from Street Fighter II and pro wrestling’s Razor Ramon (even down to the colorful vests), he’s a despicable gang leader and capoeira badass without any redeemable qualities. Prieto didn’t do much after this other than a role in Street Law (we’ll cover it), but he’s terrific here. The character of Silverio is pretty much exactly what you want in a good b-movie chopsocky villain: he says ridiculous things, acts like a prick all the time, and dresses like a total asshole. Great hair, too!



While I’ll stop short of calling Lewis Stevens dry toast, he’s surprisingly wholesome despite a few allusions to a troubled past. The educational-do-gooder-as-action-hero isn’t yet a tried and true formula and I wasn’t totally convinced by the cultural sea change illustrated here. That’s not to say that I find selfless people insufferable, but as someone who spends too much time drinking really good scotch and making poor life decisions, I sometimes have difficulty relating to them. Dacascos still gives it his all, playing the hard-ass when the kids need it, dispensing humor where appropriate, and showing off excellent form in every fight scene.


At the helm is frequent Jean-Claude Van Damme collaborator, Sheldon Lettich. I’ve always found his technique to be solid but unremarkable, and his third film is no different. He gives the fight choregraphy space to breathe and mixes in cool camera angles, overuses montages (including the requisite “progress through cartwheels” one), and juggles a lot of characters and plot points. Where he really succeeds is in the pace. I recall being underwhelmed when I first saw this movie as a teenager, but I was struck by his observance of one of the great unspoken “rules” of action cinema where something compelling -- plot development, humorous moment, fight scene, etc. -- happens every 15 minutes.

(Author’s Note: This review was finalized before learning of the passing of actor Geoffrey Lewis. He was great in this film, just as he was in so many other movies. I really do love him in everything and will miss his presence on the screen).

VERDICT
As Dacascos’s first real lead role, it’s easy to see why he’s had such a long and prolific career. On the same token, it’s a bit puzzling to me why he didn’t become a bigger star -- he’s charismatic, humorous, and a terrific on-screen fighter. All of those traits are on various degrees of display in Only the Strong, and despite the Disney-esque saccharine moments and plenty of 90s cliches, it’s an enjoyable film with interesting characters and a good redemption story. Recommended.

4 / 7

3.19.2015

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






PLOT THICKENER
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. 

VERDICT
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. 

AVAILABILITY
YouTube and Amazon (VHS).

3.5 / 7

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