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

3.10.2015

Karate Cop (1991)

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

AVAILABILITY
Amazon.

1 / 7
 


1.13.2015

Furious (1984)

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

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




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

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


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


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


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

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


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

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

6 / 7

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