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



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.


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.


Amazon, eBay.

4.5 / 7



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


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.


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.


Amazon, eBay.

4 / 7


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


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.


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.


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

3.5 / 7


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


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.


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.


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

3 / 7


Fight to Win (1987)

PLOT: After a humiliating loss, an arrogant fighter must relearn his craft from a new teacher who has a romantic past with their common enemy. It wasn’t very serious though -- they only got to second base before she called it off.

Director: Leo Fong
Writers: James Belmessieri, George Chung
Cast: George Chung, Cynthia Rothrock, Chuck Jeffreys, Richard Norton, Juan Chapa, Hidy Ochai, Bill “Superfoot” Wallace, Ronnie Lott


The early members of the West Coast Demo Team included founder Ernie Reyes Sr., Ernies Reyes Jr., Margie Betke, Cynthia Rothrock, Tom Callos, Scott Coker, Belinda Davis, Gary Nakahama, Dayton Pang, George Chung, and Soo Gin Lee. We can’t blame you if you don’t recognize more than a couple of those names -- few went into the film industry at all -- and no one would dispute that Cynthia Rothrock is the most prolific among them. Yet 1993’s kid-friendly Surf Ninjas, which featured the most involvement from the former demonstration teammates, didn’t have Rothrock at all. Who, then, of her West Coast Demo brethren, did the Blonde Fury actually work with in film? If you guessed George Chung, give yourself a gold star. It’s shiny and gluten-free, though I wouldn’t recommend eating it.

About a year before Leo Fong cut a car-roof-shaped hole into our collective hearts in Low Blow, he directed Rothrock’s brief appearance in her first film, 24 Hours to Midnight. Not long afterwards, she would trek overseas to Hong Kong for Yes, Madam! and another trio of films on her way to becoming a bonafide action star. Fast-forward to 1987, where Fong brought her back into the fold in a supporting role. This time, however, she’d be joined by West Coast Demo teammate George Chung, her 24 Hours… co-star Juan Chapa, and martial arts superfriends like Chuck Jeffreys and her Magic Crystal co-star, Richard Norton. Given her upward trajectory at that time, it’s more than a bit puzzling to see her playing second fiddle to Chung in his first film role. I’m going to go out on a limb and call it a friendly favor. Or maybe she needed beer money.

Ryan Kim (Chung) is a cocky but skilled martial artist who helps out at his master’s dojo by occasionally teaching teenaged Valley Girls private lessons in self-defense while his pal, Jerry (Chapa) teaches youth classes. We find him fending off the angry, burly brother of his latest trainees before he meets with a Harvard archaeology professor who shows up to facilitate the requisite plot exposition. It turns out that Ryan inherited one of three priceless statues that were awarded to the winners of a martial arts tournament arranged by an eccentric art collector years ago. Ryan’s Sensei (Ochai) owns another and an Australian fighter named Armstrong (Norton) owns the third. The professor believes they have mystical properties and encourages Ryan to consider donating them them to a museum, noting, “when you do nice things, nice things come back to you.” Of course, Ryan’s not hearing that shit.

Following a successful team exhibition, Ryan and Sensei are confronted in the parking lot by Armstrong himself. He proposes a fight between Ryan and his top student -- Tankston, played by Bill “Superfoot” Wallace -- with each man’s statue on the line. After Sensei has a health scare and Ryan fails to adequately train himself, Sensei calls in a favor to Lauren (Rothrock) to become his primary teacher. As the only fighter to vanquish Tankston and someone who knows Armstrong from a previously failed relationship, she’s uniquely qualified to push Ryan to the next level. What follows is a phased tug-of-war for possession of all three priceless artifacts. Ryan experiences a crisis of self-confidence. Frequent ball-busting from his friends Jerry and Michael (Jeffreys) doesn’t help, and he and Lauren bicker like teenagers. And then San Francisco 49ers defensive back Ronnie Lott shows up because 1980s action movie reasons.

Given that this was an obscure and narrowly distributed film, critical coverage is pretty thin. Our pal the Direct to Video Connoisseur was entertained by its “really good 80s bad action” but I couldn’t find another standalone review out there that gave it a thorough look. Opinion from the Letterboxd crowd is decidedly average, which is peaches and cream compared to the savaging it’s received from the desolate wasteland that is the Amazon User Review-verse. Perhaps the most disparaging among them -- claiming “there is nothing left in this movie that will cause memory retention upon any accidental viewing” -- was written by the film’s own screenwriter, James Belmessieri! Apparently, the fact that most of his re-write -- from the expository dialogue to his “story development scenes” and “thoughtfully developed characters” -- didn’t end up on the screen left him with sour feelings. Uh, did James know he was supposed to be writing a chopsocky movie and not a historical drama? We want fight scenes, some quotable lines, a few montages with an upbeat rock or synth track, and a visible boom mic or two. So, if this movie didn’t resemble the one Belmessieri wrote, that might be for the best. (The boom mics were definitely visible).

The humor in the film -- much like the fight scenes -- prove to be rather hit and miss. Can any 80s action film resist the low-hanging fruit of the “we’ve got company!” line? This one certainly didn’t. This is somehow more surprising than the protagonist’s obsession with the fact that a woman -- yes, a woman with different hormones and a few different body parts! -- is trying to train him in the martial arts. (I’m not sure whether to give or deduct points for the movie limiting itself to just one menstruation joke). Didn’t homeboy watch Come Drink with Me?! It gets worse. In the film’s climax, some of our supporting heroes pretend to be aloof but well-dressed homosexuals in order to fool Armstrong’s guards about their intentions on his sprawling property. You consider all of these shallow jabs intended to be humor alongside its 1987 born-on date -- not exactly the most progressive era for identity politics or equal treatment -- and somehow all of this stuff seems typical, if not forgivable. On the other hand, the humor that works really well can be found in the heroic group’s banter, some of it ball-busting, some of it self-deprecating. Sensei’s confusion over American slang (“What is dicknose?”) is reasonably funny. The trope of Ryan repeatedly getting hit in the nose by his enemies is amusing, if a little overused. And the dynamic between Ryan and Lauren is also engaging, because she believably (and consistently) shows him up or puts him in his place.

Without giving too much away, the last 20 minutes of the film come out of left field. It rapidly morphs from a whimsical story about discarding one’s ego and opening oneself to learning, to a violent men-on-a-mission home invasion set-piece with fatal consequences. I frankly never saw the climax taking this form based on the story’s trajectory. It was as if the filmmakers stumbled upon a pile of cash and free guns during the final weekend of shooting and decided to throw everything at the wall in a mad dash to the finish. A lot of people are going to be more confused at my mention of Ronnie Lott than this plot derailing, but I assure you it makes total sense. (Chung worked with the 49ers during the 1990s and put Lott in his other film, Hawkeye, aka Karate Cops).


While I won’t sit here with a straight face and try to sell you on Fight to Win as an above-average fight film, I will say that it entertained me more than other films with more production sheen but less of an inclination to cut loose and get silly. All too often, American chopsocky films try to play things serious and end up looking ridiculous for it (there’s value in this approach too). Humor often doesn’t work in action films when it’s forced, but a lot of the quips here arise from the ball-busting banter between real-life pals. That sense of enjoyment translates on screen and no amount of visible boom mics or awkward insert scenes can undermine it. Ready-made for fans of Chuck Jeffreys and the original members of the West Coast Demo Team ... or NFL Hall of Famer, Ronnie Lott.


Try your luck on YouTube or go with the tried and true method of hoarding VHS copies off eBay. Tough to find.

3 / 7

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