Director: Steve Austin
Writer: David Huey
Cast: Gary Daniels, Ian Jacklin, Gerald Okamura, Roger Yuan, Tracy Dali, Kent Ducanon, Andrew Cooper
“Youth is wasted on the young,” said George Bernard Shaw, a man I once believed to be a curmudgeonly dickhead. It wasn’t until I turned into one myself that I discovered he was totally right! Young people have boundless energy and opportunities but spend most of their days finding ways to fuck it up. The bubble of youth is the best time to make those mistakes, though. American Streetfighter, a 1992 Silver Screen movie starring Gary Daniels, explores this idea of youthful indiscretion and the relationships that suffer as a result. It also answers the age-old question: is a funeral parlor a good setting for a samurai sword fight?
As evidenced by his tassled leather jacket, acid wash jeans, and poor decision making, Jake Tanner (Daniels) is a young punk mixed up with the wrong crowd. After he and his fellow gang member, Ito (Yuan), rig up a jukebox with explosives to damage a local business, they realize innocent people were inside! They run back to save them, but the hapless potential victims are packing heat and open fire. Jake escapes with his life, but Ito is shot dead. To be more accurate, Jake drives off after Ito is shot, but still alive. Because Jake drove off, Ito is stuck waiting around to be shot again.
Years later, Jake has moved on to bigger and better things in his new life in Hong Kong. Leather jackets and unkempt locks have given way to power suits and a greasy ponytail. His shitty getaway car has evolved into a shitty office with a drop ceiling and poor lighting. Dead business deals have replaced dead friends. During a late night at the office, he receives a troubling phone call from his mother: Randy is in trouble. Wait, who’s Randy? Oh right, the younger brother in the picture Jake is now holding.
Randy (Jacklin), is a rising star in the world of underground fighting. When Jake arrives after his latest fight to discourage this behavior, Randy rejects the advice. After all, Jake ran away following his own transgressions and left his sibling alone to fend for himself during his formative years.
A shrewd businessman if there ever was one, Jake approaches the fight circuit boss, Ogawa (Okamura) and asks to buy out Randy’s contract. When Ogawa rebuffs, Jake instead offers to take Randy’s place as a fighter-by-proxy. For reasons known only to screenwriter David Huey, Ogawa totally goes for it. Jake gets his ass handed to him in his first competitive fight -- even suffering the indignity of being repeatedly whipped with a car antenna -- and retreats to the home of his master’s daughter, Rose (Dali), to lick his wounds. While there, he goes through a rigorous rehabilitation program under the supervision of Rose’s adolescent son, whose martial arts knowledge is informed by his rabid Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fandom. Once he’s fully healed, Jake is joined by his master, Nick (Ducanon) and they take the fight to Ogawa’s gang.
If you know his work, the involvement of Expert Weapon’s director, Steven Austin doesn’t inspire much confidence. In fact, if the films I’ve reviewed were holiday desserts, King of the Kickboxers is a delicious pecan pie at the high end of the spectrum, whereas Expert Weapon would be a pile of stale-ass pizzelles or plum pudding. (For continued debate around weak-ass holiday desserts, please leave your thoughts in the comments). This film isn’t nearly as rough as the aforementioned Ian Jacklin joint, but it lacks technical polish -- the soundtrack appears to have been lifted from a mix of 80s porn and an SNK fighting game ported to a 16-bit console -- and the pacing is fairly wonky. Fight circuit backdrop: plastic sheeting and gaudy light colors. The action: occasionally competent but weirdly edited and choreographed. The dialogue: just nevermind, OK? The movie definitely gets points for the feathered locks of Gary Daniels but I don’t think we should give Austin credit for that. (Unless he did hair and make-up. I’ll need to consult the production credits again to confirm).
Out of at least three Daniels films, this is the third in which he’s been drugged or otherwise had his mental acuities compromised. While Daniels needs to keep a better eye on his drink, I suppose putting your martial arts hero on drugs is the logical extension of the “drunken master” trope popularized and codified by Hong Kong kung fu cinema of yesteryear. That said, what drugs would make for the best martial arts movie? Weed would turn any serious fight film into a stoner comedy, so that has crossover appeal. Heroin is too prone to overdose. I’d have to think that something like meth or crack cocaine would yield the best product. If the hero in "Return of the Supreme Crackhead Master" seems too invincible, just put all of the bad guys on bath salts and have them eat the master’s face for the inciting incident. This shit practically writes itself.
This film nips around the edges of some solid and trashy action, but it comes in drips and drabs. The underground fight scenes are comical -- Ian Jacklin’s youthful arrogance is characterized by him flexing his muscles with exaggerated grunts after he strikes (“flex fighting”) -- but also slow and awkward. The same can be said of the stunt work. During a climactic scene involving henchmen on dirt bikes, we see one of the most disproportionately cruel and protracted retaliations by a hero in the history of cinema. After a snazzy dirt bike entrance, a henchman is tossed from his bike, pummeled to the ground, covered in gasoline, and then set ablaze via Zippo by the grizzled, eyepatch-wearing Nick. The whole scene transpired over what seemed like hours and would be right at home in a Videodrome telecast. Then there’s that funeral parlor sword fight, which is plodding despite the inspired mise-en-scene. Remember kids: not even a samurai sword can make a short-sleeve shirt and tie combo look cool.
American Streetfighter is a fight film made on the cheap and punctuated by occasional quirks. The choreographed violence is frequent and often over-the-top (see: aforementioned funeral parlor sword fight). There are curious character ticks galore, a totally hamfisted subplot about dead kickboxers, and more socially awkward moments than at a food packaging convention. (I have no proof, but I’ve always assumed this industry is full of weirdos). The movie works as a cinematic curiosity, but is probably for Daniels and Jacklin completists only.
Amazon, EBay, Netflix.
3 / 7