12.23.2010

Talons of the Eagle (1992)

PLOT: Two cops -- one from Canada, the other from New York -- train in the specialized martial art of Eagle Claw in order to enter a fighting tournament organized by Mr. Li, a Toronto criminal overlord. As they penetrate Li’s inner circle, they must gather evidence, avoid suspicion, and hook up with as many foxy ladies as Li throws at them.

Director: Michael Kennedy
Writer: J. Stephen Maunder
Cast: Billy Blanks, Jalal Merhi, James Hong, Priscilla Barnes, Matthias Hues, Eric Lee, Harry Mok, Kelly Gallant, Qingfu Pan 


PLOT THICKENER:
What do you get when you add 10% worth of martial-arts actors, 10% of James Hong, 20% of Priscilla Barnes, and 70% of blue lighting gels? You get 1992’s Talons of the Eagle. And yes, I realize the aforementioned percentages add up to 110%. But you’ve failed to account for the fact that Billy Blanks always gives 130% and Jalal Merhi only gives about 80% and Canada has the metric system. I’m no math major, but I’m pretty sure you’re not either, so let’s move on.

In brandishing a golden cavalcade of b-movie martial-artists -- Billy Blanks, Harry Mok, Eric Lee, Jalal Merhi, Kelly Gallant, and Matthias Hues -- Talons of the Eagle is something of a dream cast of action talent. Throw in character actors James Hong and Priscilla Barnes, some gratuitous nudity, a silly early 90s score, and you have what should have been an action trash classic. Unfortunately, the elements of the film don’t quite coalesce the way they should.


FoBL favorite Billy Blanks stars as Tyler Wilson, a tough NYC narcotics cop. His counterpart across the border is Michael Reed, played by ponytailed former jeweler Jalal Merhi. Within the first five minutes of the film, each of them manages to botch drug stings in riveting fashion, except that Reed’s fuck-up leads to DEA cops getting killed. Tyler is sent to Toronto by his superiors to partner with Reed and infiltrate the gang held responsible.

The easiest route for access is a martial-arts tournament put on by the gang’s leader, Mr. Li (Hong). But before entering the tournament, they need better training, so they seek out an Eagle Claw academy. Real-life asskicker Qingfu Pan, who once trained Hong Kong police cadets in fighting techniques, plays the school’s master. His acting doesn’t quite leapfrog Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy, but he’s here for his fighting widsom and his grizzled knuckles tell the story: he’s either punched a lot of people or has a gnarly bacterial infection.


After they do some fancy tournament fighting and break up an attempt on Li’s life, Tyler and Reed catch the gang-leader’s eye and he brings them into the fold as muscle. The bossman’s main lady, Cassandra (Barnes) acts as their guide but Li’s existing henchmen Khan (Hues) and Niko (Mok) are a little perturbed by the new help, with the former being particularly suspicious. The rest of the film follows Tyler and Reed trying to collect evidence under the gang’s watchful eye while carrying out Li’s orders and performing poorly-acted martial artist love scenes with female cast members.

As Mr. Li, James Hong is mostly excellent. The businessman-as-evildoer is nothing new in this genre, but Hong’s performance walks the line between sleaze and sophistication and it acts as a cohesive superglue that prevents an otherwise poorly made film from completely falling apart. He gets to show a fair amount of range too: he’s suave, he jokes with glee, he flies off the handle, fires off glocks, and looks mad cool while ripping through about seven packs of Pall Malls in the 97-minute runtime. Hong can and does act circles around everyone else in his scenes, but he also plays off them well enough to make their stiffness believable in the context of an aged criminal ordering around the hired muscle. Though for all his infinite criminal wisdom, he should have known better than to light a fucking cigarette in a tiny storage room full of C4 explosives.


While lacking speed and creativity, the fighting sequences during the climax still win points on settings and death blows. In typical martial-arts film fashion, characters pair off for individual battles which, for obvious reasons, vary wildly in quality. With Master Pan and company rushing in for the assist, we get a decent little weapons battle between Pan and Eric Lee. It’s rare you get an on-screen fight between such decorated real-life fighters, so it’s a bit of a bummer that the fight is short, slow, and like most of the fights, poorly shot and edited. Pan’s student, played by Kelly Gallant, gets an brief and boring fight that underscores how poorly utilized she was in the film.

Tyler and Niko have a pretty good scuffle in a restaurant kitchen with Niko bringing out his nifty giant-fucking-knife technique, which Tyler tries to counter with every piece of kitchenware he can find, up to and including the very same mesh strainer my wife has been asking for since last Christmas. It is not customary to see any man fighting someone off with a mesh strainer, nevermind a black-belt and fitness-craze inventor. Perhaps worse, he actually throws fistfuls of salad to fend off his attacker. Nay, TOSSES SALAD.

The real crown jewel of the fights is a battle between Blanks and Hues in a parking garage. Shit starts off with Hues walking into frame with an oil barrel raised over his head screaming like a maniac and we know from the jump that it’s on like Donkey Kong. Because of the barrel, see? Both guys are shirtless and bathed in the omnipresent blue light that plagues 90% of the film and all of this would be cheesy enough were it not for the delicious saxophone music that accompanies the throwdown.


During all of this, Reed is fighting Mr. Li on a roof. Keep in mind that Hong was on the wrong side of 60 at this point in his career and was using a folding fan as a weapon. How is it then plausible that a cop and martial-arts master in his physical prime needs more than 60 seconds to beat an elderly businessman using eight ounces of bamboo and paper to fight? Errrrrr?

While dramatic performers are often underutilized in films like this, it’s not always the case that they’re humiliated for their efforts. Not only is Priscilla Barnes subjected to an attempted rape scene, but she’s also forced to act alongside Jalal Merhi while he’s adorned in a ghastly Jockey banana hammock. And this is before they have random shower sex in which Merhi kisses her as if he were eating mashed potatoes with his hands tied behind his back. So not only does Barnes now have “Three’s Company replacement cast member” on her resume, but also “poorly acted martial artist shower sex.” She really does deserve better.


VERDICT:
You expect films like this to be poorly produced but there’s always a potential for choice moments that somehow elevate it above average fare. They’re few and far between in Talons of the Eagle. Outside of some lines from Hong, there’s very little quotable dialogue and Merhi and Blanks make a poor pair and their dynamic isn’t conflictual enough to be interesting. Worst of all, director Michael Kennedy and his editing team do a huge disservice to the fighting talent because the hand-to-hand action didn’t look so hot. The constant blue lighting was also a huge and distracting negative. While you get a decent villain performance from James Hong, this is probably only for Blanks completists.

AVAILABILITY:
Amazon, Netflix, bargain bins.

3.5 / 7


12.16.2010

Fist of Feature: The Holiday Wish List of Fury

Season’s Greetings! It’s that festive time of year when we drink too much egg-nog, eat too much Chanukah gelt, and air grievances that destroy relationships with friends and family.

In the spirit of the season, and because I’m a greedy prick, I thought it’d be appropriate to go over a short list of gifts I’m hoping to receive over the holidays.






Zubaz Pants
This fashion staple has been well-documented both here and in Google images searches for “road warriors AND dan marino.” Once the pants of choice for football players and pro wrestlers, Zubaz pants also caught fire with the martial-arts set in the late 1980s and early 90s. I’m ashamed to admit that I never owned a pair, though I did have one or two pairs from Zubaz’s primary rival, the checkered nightmares known as Skidz. After all these years, which brand is left standing in the popular conscience? FUCKYEAHZUBAZ.



Jewelry by Jalal Merhi
Action film director and actor Jalal Merhi apparently sold his share of a profitable jewelry business in order to break into film and form his production company, Film One. We haven’t covered any of his films yet, but if he was able to turn a profit as a jeweler, he’s definitely a better businessman than he is an actor. What would Jalal jewelery even look like? Necklaces weaved from the hair of his on-again/off-again ponytail? A golden medallion in the visage of Bolo Yeung? The possibilities are endless … and also poorly written, underlit, and have James Hong as the lead villain.




Expect No Mercy: The Game
Growing up during the SNES era, I loved fighting games, even the shitty ones. Shaq-Fu and Rise of the Robots found themselves on the same shelf as Street Fighter 2 Turbo and Killer Instinct. To my great surprise, I learned that Jalal Merhi’s 1996 film Expect No Mercy (also starring Billy Blanks) had a companion fighting game released on PC. I don’t believe anything I read on the Internet, particularly cross-promotional efforts for DTV sci-fi martial arts movies released during the 1990s, so I did some additional research (on the Internet) and confirmed it. Based on the clip below, the Expect No Mercy game is Mortal Kombat II’s poorly designed, underdeveloped, visually unimpressive copycat of a little brother. In other words, it’ll look great next to Kasumi Ninja and that first World Heroes port.




That Book Gary Daniels Was Reading in Bloodmoon
Remember the end of Pulp Fiction where John Travolta was taking a shit in the diner while the robbery was taking place? He was reading the first book in the infamous Modesty Blaise series. I didn’t buy this book and never read it. But I love seeing books appear in films and trying to figure out why a filmmaker would include them or how the book’s story might relate to the film’s narrative. More than that, I love adding said books to lists that I always fail to consult when purchasing books. I still have no idea why The Witness, Sandra Brown's thriller about a public defender who discovers a terrible secret about her new husband, was included in Bloodmoon. I think Gary Daniels was just trying to look well-read.




Keith Cooke’s Korflex Body Revolution 
While I’m no slouch (Tang Soo Do yellow belt FTW!) I’m no ironman either. January is a popular time of year for people to dedicate themselves to getting in shape. Anytime is a popular time of year for martial artists to launch new fitness crazes. For those and other reasons, I’m really itching to try the Korflex Body Revolution home fitness system by Keith Cooke of King of the Kickboxers and China O’Brien fame. Will it make me as physically fit as one of the best on-screen facekickers of all time? With a price tag of $40, and with the amount of beer I drink, probably not.





Billy’s Boot Camp DVD Box Set
While Chuck Norris may have beaten him to the fitness craze punch with his endorsement of the Total Gym system, Billy Blanks remains the only martial-arts actor to attain success with a true fitness phenomenon. His Tae Bo work-out demonstrated that pretending to beat the shit out of an invisible opponent was a great way to get in shape. However, I’ll let you in on a little secret: I used to do this all the time as a kid. I emulated my favorite action stars and pro wrestlers in my yard or basement but no one looked at that and said: “Hey, that looks like a great way to get in shape!” or “That’s a million-dollar fitness craze waiting to happen.” They said “what the fuck is wrong with that little jerk in the Skidz pants?” or “is that little jerk in the Skidz pants having a seizure?” In the world of business, the only thing separating the little jerk in the Skidz pants from the multi-millionaire fitness guru is clever marketing.



To all of our readers, Internet friends, and people who totally forgot they subscribed to the RSS feed, have a truly happy holidays!

12.14.2010

American Kickboxer 1 (1991)

PLOT:
A disgraced former kickboxing champion must rebuild his life after going to prison. In his absence, his arch-rival rises the ranks and taunts him from his perch atop the middleweight kickboxing world, where he has a nice view of the ocean, a brand-new dog park, and his own house.

Director: Frans Nel
Writers: John Barrett, Emil Kolbe
Cast: John Barrett, Keith Vitali, Brad Morris, Terry Norton, Ted Le Plat, Len Sparrowhawk, Roger Yuan


PLOT THICKENER:
If you watched nothing but Gary Daniels or Cynthia Rothrock movies, you might be lulled into thinking that kickboxing exists only as a tool of violence and retribution within the world of drug runners, serial killers, terrorists, Communists, and crooked authority figures. I actually do watch nothing but Daniels and Rothrock movies, so I was surprised to learn that kickboxing is an actual sport too.

BJ Quinn, played by Chuck Norris acolyte and b-movie veteran John Barrett, is an aged champion kickboxer at the back-end of elite status in his career. After a hard-fought victory over middleweight contender Chad Hunter (Vitali) he and other figures from the kickboxing universe attend an after-party hosted by his promoter (Sparrowhawk). Unfortunately, young punk upstart Jacques Denard (Morris) hits on Quinn’s lady, Carol (Norton) during the festivities and roughs her up when she rejects his advances. Quinn responds with shit-faced aggression but before things reach a boiling point, he lashes out at a bystander trying to break up the scuffle. The clumsy oaf flails his way through a shoddily constructed glass table and later dies in a hospital. You might say: “how can someone die from falling through a glass table?” But you need to remember this was the early 90s. The medical community was almost entirely focused on combating AIDS and probably had no one on staff qualified to treat his cuts and scrapes.


The fallout from this accident is devastating for Quinn. While Hunter vouches for his character at the trial, Denard offers deceptive testimony to muddy the waters. The judge hands down a stiff 12-month prison sentence and bans him from all title fights for the next five years, which effectively ends Quinn’s prime. No more electrifying kicks. No more girlish screams to pump up the crowd between rounds. No more Roger Yuan and the guy with puffy mullet as his corner men.

Upon Quinn’s release from prison, Carol picks him up from the clink in his old sportscar, but despite the show of loyalty it’s obvious Quinn is a changed man. He stands in silence in front of his fish tank wearing nothing but tighty whities. He drinks constantly, sometimes by himself. His relationship with Carol is rocky at best, and his newly formed friendship with former opponent Hunter is tenuous and marked by bickering. Quinn further isolates himself in an effort to reconstruct his identity as a person, not a fighter, but he continues to struggle with the absence of kickboxing glory.

Monitoring most of this and other kickboxing happenings is a newspaper reporter named Willard (Le Plat). He wants nothing more than to get a headline about middleweight kickboxing on his newspaper’s front page and will do just about anything to get it. Well, he doesn’t blow or blackmail anyone. But he’s pretty much a stalker who harasses every fighter he can find for quotes or backstage dirt. Because of this, he has a contentious relationship with virtually everyone, and Denard in particular has it in for him. As a character, Willard wasn’t entirely necessary but it allowed Nel to integrate a lot of modified newspaper headlines.


Despite his status as new champion, Denard doesn’t have a desire to be the best so much as he wants to be better than Quinn. He goes out of his way to antagonize him and his arrogant sense of entitlement is on full display throughout the film. He turns up to formal soirees in tank tops and ill-fitting pants, wears dark sunglasses during a court testimony, threatens kids seeking autographs, and even headbutts an innocent locker door. While all of this sufficiently characterizes Denard’s dickishness, Morris so thoroughly embraces the character’s traits that we can’t help but be entranced. Much of an audience’s hatred for a villain is set in motion by a single event but Denard is such a complete and utter asshole in everything he says and does that you legitimately want to see him beaten to death. And he has horizontal lines shaved into his head, which is OK if it’s 1991 and you’re nine years-old. But give Denard a pair of Ray Bans and some skinny jeans and he’s pretty much every hipster douche you’ve wanted to see step in dog shit and into oncoming traffic.


As a fighter, Denard is talented but his strategies in the ring are unconventional. At the start of matches, he allows his opponents to land a few strikes in order to get pumped up. Following that, he typically drives them into the ropes or the corner and hammers away until they’re knocked out or the ref gets between them. That said, he’s not above including cheap shots in his arsenal either. All the while, he plays to the crowd while decked out in teal tights under a colorfully patterned banana hammock and flowy tassles. The result is one of the more colorful martial arts villains of the era, and it’s a shame Morris’s skills as both actor and fighter weren’t put to better use in additional films. This was his last film role and he hasn’t been heard from since. It’s unlikely that you’d see Bolo Yeung or Michel Qissi giving this nuanced of a performance (especially in thongs with tassles) so Morris deserves to be lauded for his efforts.


The fights in the film are light on creative choreography and heavy on dodging, bobbing, and weaving. While certainly realistic in the context of a kickboxing match, it isn’t all that interesting to watch unfold on the screen, though all of these guys are good fighters. However, Hunter and Quinn deserve special recognition for some intense training montages. While they don't reach quite the same sweaty and rippling heights, the film contains the most homoerotic jogging scenes since Balboa and Creed in Rocky III.

VERDICT:

Because of the bad hair, bad fashion, and goofy montages, there was great potential here for the film to flail about in a vast pool of piping hot Gruyere … and it still does, at times. But the story and strong performances from Morris and Barrett elevate it above the trappings of its place and era to exist as an average-to-solid redemptive sports story. Audiences have seen this Rocky-style arc done bigger and better elsewhere -- like in, uh.... Rocky -- but Nel is somehow able to forge cohesion with the film’s elements and it results in a fairly entertaining watch.

AVAILABILITY:
Freely available via Amazon and Netflix. Tassles and thong not included.

5 / 7

12.05.2010

Terminator Woman (1993)

PLOT:
Two American cops take on a ruthless and wealthy industrialist. Surprise -- he’s not an old white British dude! And he’s not played by James Hong. He deals in everything from gun running to white slavery and he’s looking for a hidden stash of gold and will stop at nothing to find it. Will the cops stop at nothing to stop him from stopping at nothing?

Director: Michel Qissi
Writers: Jeannette Aragonoff Qissi, John S. Soet
Cast: Jerry Trimble, Karen Sheperd, Michel Qissi, Ashley Hayden, Ted Le Plat, Siphiwe Mlangeni

PLOT THICKENER:
While it’s fairly common for martial arts directors to step in front of the camera in minor acting roles, it’s somewhat rare for martial arts actors to helm productions from the director’s chair. With a bevy of directorial efforts between them, Hong Kong veterans like Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung are obvious exceptions. However, output from figures on the American martial arts scene runs painfully thin, like a boring soup or Shawn Bradley’s entire body.

Steven Seagal threw his hat in the directorial ring with 1994’s environmental action picture On Deadly Ground. Jean Claude Van-Damme stepped on Seagal’s hat in 1996 with the tournament-style snoozer, The Quest. Preceding and trumping the shit out of both these efforts was Michel Qissi’s 1993 film, Terminator Woman. Famous for his role as Tong Po in the first two Kickboxer films, Qissi not only directed, edited, and performed in the film, but also choreographed its many fight scenes. His wife at the time also co-wrote and co-produced it. Will the married duo’s level of involvement be a boon to the film or the Qissi of death? Sorry -- couldn’t resist.


Qissi plays Alex Gatelee, a wealthy industrialist based in South Africa. Similar to Art Vandelay of Vandelay Industries, Gatelee is an importer-exporter cloaked in mystery. Unlike Vandelay, Gatelee is not the product of George Constanza’s incessant lying, but is instead a ruthless motherfucker with a giant scar across his face. He throws his workers out of windows for weak apologies and tears out their mullets for baseless lies. When not maiming the help, Gatelee is searching for gold hidden somewhere along the South African coast, and the only person who knows its location is a material witness recently escorted back to the country by two American detectives.

In a non-traditional pairing that turns the buddy cop formula on its ear, Jerry Trimble plays a sassy blonde cop named Julie and Karen Sheperd plays her macho partner Jay Handlin. Actually, I think Sheperd plays Julie; she just has a butch haircut. Beyond their partnership, these two have a martial arts rivalry marked by underpinnings of sexual tension what with their incredible fighting prowess, frequent flirting, and interlocking genitalia. While Jay’s feelings are made clear by behavior like leering at Julie’s ass and booking a single hotel room with only one bed during their stay, Julie makes it known that she finds Jay to be both “unoriginal” and “sexually amoral.” They have a reasonable amount of chemistry and their dynamic is a nice change of pace from the old/young, gruff/fast-talking, black/white/Asian/Bavarian combinations we’re used to seeing in action films. So it’s unfortunate Qissi decided to keep their characters separated for the majority of the film.


That’s not to say Trimble and Sheperd don’t get a decent amount of screen time together. It’s just not enough to make their relationship the strong dramatic element it should have been. They have an early tandem action scene while escorting the witness in which they’re run off the road by Gatelee’s thugs, and then decide to leave the car to flee on foot. Why? Because you can’t have Trimble and Sheperd kicking ass in hand-to-hand combat if they’re stuck in a car chase! While Trimble’s kicking is always fun to watch, the highlight of this early skirmish is Sheperd’s mid-air double-scrotum kick, killing two birds with one stone. Scrotum birds.

After the two are forcibly separated, Jay teams with a local South African boy named Charlie (Mlangeni) to track down Gatelee and his missing partner. Charlie acts as Jay’s guide and logistical maestro and is even a bit of a smart-ass at times, which allows for some engaging back-and-forth between the pair. To Mlangeni’s credit, Charlie doesn’t approach Short-Round levels of annoyance and brings out a charismatic aspect of Trimble rarely seen. Best of all, Charlie throws some choice fist pumps during a dirtbike chase scene that sees Jay kicking thugs off moving vehicles and leading them into a dangerously busy retail parking lot.


Julie spends most of the second act hitting enemies in various vital regions, but mostly in the balls. One of the all-time great onscreen female fighters, Sheperd is joy to watch in action, in great part because of her incredible skill, but also because of her wardrobe. The filmmakers were somehow able to convince her into wearing an embroidered top with a built-in push-up bra for 80% of the movie, and her cleavage isn’t so much distracting as it is violently confrontational. Thankfully, the writers worked in a nightclub scene to explain away her unique choice in attire. Unfortunately, this also paved the way for Sheperd to perform the most hideous dance moves this side of Elaine Benes. Full body dry-heave indeed.


While the film’s misfires are numerous, the first worth mentioning is the cover art. It depicts a cold and unforgiving stare in the background with Julie’s character in a leather jacket and tights doing a split in mid-air while handling a bow-staff and screaming her face off. On first glance, it looks like she’s also wearing either heavy make-up or a mask over her eyes. All of this looks kinda cool. But upon closer inspection, it looks like the artist lost all concept of perspective when illustrating the character’s eyes, because they’re halfway down her head and bulging out of the sockets. She looks like Brian Peppers if he had ample cleavage and an Indigo Girls haircut.


Second: this film has a ton of flowing blonde mullets, but not one of them belongs to Jerry Trimble. Fail.

As lead villain, Qissi is quite menacing as Gatelee. He has a good look and does some truly dickish things to enhance the villainy of his character. After the aforementioned mullet-ripping, he even hands the tuft of hair to another henchman, as if to say: “Please take this hair away, it’s greasy like a KFC drumstick.” All of this serves as an effective counterweight to Gatelee’s horrendous fashion sense. When he’s not wearing silk shirts covered in floating heads, he’s wearing burgundy Cosby sweaters. It’s 1993, so this misstep is somewhat forgivable.


As a director, he’s a bit hit and miss. The action scenes are edited well for the most part, but some sound effects were misplaced and in certain cases, entirely absent. He also had a few curious camera placements, including a blatant upskirt shot of a supporting female character that I’m not going to complain much about. A little weird, though. There’s solid stunt work throughout the film and Trimble and Sheperd are two of the better onscreen fighters that one could have casted. While isolating their characters prevents them from building upon a fairly engaging chemistry, it also helps to showcase each of their unique fighting talents. Qissi also employs a good variety of fighting locations -- caves, narrow hallways, and a speedboat among them -- and while each environment might be underutilized with respect to the choreography, it’s nice to see something other than alleys and warehouses as backdrops.

VERDICT:
Terminator Woman is a slightly above-average B-movie action film. Sheperd and Trimble are both in good form as the leads and any completists will want to check this out. As a first effort, Qissi’s direction is decent despite some miscues, none of which sink the film in any meaningful way. To his credit, he keeps the downtime to a minimum and also finds a way to work in some ‘splosions and a grisly stalactite death scene. Or stalagmite. I always get those confused.

AVAILABILITY:
While intenders will find VHS is the easiest bet, those with all-region players might luck themselves into a used DVD via EBay.

5 / 7

11.22.2010

Live by the Fist (1993)

PLOT:
Ex- Navy SEAL John Merill is imprisoned in the Philippines for a crime he didn’t commit. Upon incarceration, he experiences the horrors of the Filipino prison system, which combines rampant racism and police corruption with a frightening lack of adobo chicken. (Delicious, by the way).

Director: Cirio H. Santiago
Writer: Charles Philip Moore
Cast: Jerry Trimble, George Takei, Vic Diaz, Ted Markland, Roland Dantes, Laura Albert, Romy Diaz


PLOT THICKENER:
In Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perception Index list, the Republic of the Philippines was ranked 134th out of 178 countries surveyed. For perspective on this, if corruption came in overly elaborate ice cream flavors, the Philippines would be Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter Cup Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough ice cream. This is not to say the country is unsafe or undeserving of your tourist dollar. Just make sure you don’t end up in Filipino prison -- that place is like Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter Cup Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough ice cream with Gummy Bears.

Because of his ability to churn out virtually any type of genre film, Cirio H. Santiago has endeared himself to exploitation film fans for all eternity; he’s done Vietnam war films, blaxploitation films, martial arts films, and post-apocalyptic action films. In Live by the Fist, Santiago includes all the character ingredients integral to a compelling prison action movie: a corrupt warden, played by Santiago regular Vic Diaz; dueling gangs cut along ethnic lines; and the wise prison elder, played by George Takei. All of them factor heavily in the fate of the Bolera Prison Colony’s newest resident, American longshoreman and ex-military man John Merill.

After he stops a woman from getting raped at a shipping yard by a gang of thugs (only to watch her get killed by them anyway) Merill gets cold-cocked and the goons plant the bloody knife on him. He’s convicted and arrives to prison a mostly innocent man, but Warden Acosta (Diaz) has heard that song before, and he doesn’t like it. (He’s more of a Paul Anka fan). A cranky old fellow, his only joy in life comes from his lizard terrarium, his samurai swords, and a swanky tiger tapestry.

Since Merill killed a thug named Chavez who had friends on the inside, a Filipino faction led by Alvarez (Romy Diaz) wants to kill him. The constant need to defend himself draws unwanted attention from the security staff, who regard Merill as a nuisance and a troublemaker. While he has relatively low stature as a “whiteboy,” slightly less as an American, and even less as someone who wears a sharktooth necklace, he has fighting skills unmatched by any other inmates. For this reason, the caucasian contingent wants him to join their crew. Led by an ex-Navy man named Sacker (Markland), these trashy whiteboys do the same things they were probably doing before prison: smoking dope, drinking moonshine, and giving the Asian population a really hard time for being Asian. Merill rebuffs their recruitment efforts and prevents Sacker from beating on an innocent old man; as a result he’s targeted by yet another group of assholes.


Despite his lone wolf status, Merill isn’t entirely without acquaintances. While he and other prisoners break up rocks on what appears to be the set of Dune Warriors, Stryker, and Equalizer 2000, a younger Filipino inmate attends to them with a cask of water. In time, he and Merill even grow comfortable enough to have a mildly homoerotic water fight. Speaking of fights, Merill’s cell-mate fucking hates them. Played by Star Trek legend and television veteran George Takei, Uncle Coronado is the prison’s conscience and having noted various abuses over the years, believes the inmates should be fighting the system instead of each other. An avid reader, he’s soaked up the prison’s law book collection and has been furtively writing letters to a human rights organization for assistance. He and Merill befriend each other, though Merill isn’t interested in the plight of the prisoners or the rampant internal corruption so much as he’s obsessed with getting the fuck out of Filipino prison.


Throughout the story, there’s a lot of backstabbing, fighting, unlikely bedfellows, and sweat. (The latter two are unrelated, by the way). Takei does what he can with the material he’s given and turns in a solid performance marked by downtrodden rage. Character actor Ted Markland is reasonably dickish as Sacker and sports the best skullet this side of Hulk Hogan. Vic Diaz is wonderfully sleazy as the corrupt warden and Romy Diaz is equally sleazy as gang honcho Alvarez. Though he’s dubbed, he has some incredible facial mannerisms aided by a supremely bushy moustache.

Wisely, Santiago chose not to go down the road of challenging American History X for “most brutal rape scene set in a prison shower.” Partly because he’d already satisfied the attempted rape quota in the film’s first scene, but mostly because Jerry Trimble is a much better fighter than Edward Norton, and therefore better at not getting raped. However, there is a fight scene set in the showers that was every bit as revolting as forcible sodomy. Merill uses common sense by wearing shoes to the washroom, only to have some assholes throw him into the shower’s draining trough. You remember that trough in college? Snots, pubes, ass-water, etc. -- shit was nasty! I would hope Merill asked for some bacitracin from the prison’s medic after swimming in that filth.

Despite the title of the film, Trimble does a great deal more kicking than fisting … err, punching. While the fight scenes are well-shot and the stuntmen make Trimble look good, the choreography on the whole is a touch repetitive. There are really no other fighters on Trimble’s level so we’re treated to him dominating revolving groups of henchmen in virtually every action scene, save for one. Toward the end of the film, Trimble crosses paths with the prison’s main guard, played by Filipino b-movie actor Roland Dantes. While many may be unfamiliar with Dantes’s work (myself included), his career was dotted with several choice action roles highlighting his expertise in arnis, the Filipino martial art of stick-fighting. Dantes breaks the sticks out against Trimble’s kicks but there’s not much to write home about; the visual impact of stick-fighting has its limitations, especially when filmed in low-light on a Santiago budget.


Last, many great films are further elevated by their respective musical scores; David Shire’s piano work on 1974’s The Conversation and Anton Karas’s zither-based score for 1949’s The Third Man immediately come to mind. I would be hard pressed to exclude Nicolas Rivera’s electric guitar score for Live by the Fist from these same distinguished annals of film history. He uniquely bends each composition to the onscreen drama: there are confrontational electric guitars for the fight scenes, morose electric guitars for the death scenes, brooding electric guitars for suspenseful scenes, and despondent electric guitars for the sad, emotional scenes. Anyone who’s ever said that that the human condition can’t be adequately illustrated through the sound of squealing electric guitars has never seen Live by the Fist.

VERDICT:
The first of three collaborations between Trimble and Santiago, Live by the Fist satisfies many of the basic tenets of the b-level martial arts film: a lot of fight scenes, character actor screen presence, an entertaining supporting cast, and fairly awful production value. Somehow, it makes for a reasonably engaging film despite its obvious limitations. At a tidy 77 minutes, you could certainly do worse, though I was a bit disappointed that Trimble dropped the mullet for this one. For his more fierce follicle performances, seek out The Master or King of the Kickboxers.

AVAILABILITY:

Readily available via Amazon and Netflix.

5.5 / 7 

11.15.2010

Bloodmoon (1997)

PLOT:
A mysterious killer with metal fingers has been knocking off martial artists, and Det. Chuck Baker is stuck with no leads as his superiors are losing patience. When retired cop Ken O’Hara joins the investigation, he and Baker must work together to put an end to the murderer’s reign of terror.

Director: Siu-Hung Leung
Writer: Keith W. Strandberg
Cast: Gary Daniels, Chuck Jeffreys, Darren Shahlavi, Frank Gorshin, Nina Repeta, Brandie Rocci, Hakim Alston


PLOT THICKENER:
During a lunar eclipse, the earth’s atmosphere can bend red sunlight into our planet's shadow and scatter out blue light. The result gives the moon an orange or reddish appearance. Lunar eclipses occur at least twice a year and present excellent opportunities for night photography, stargazing, and killing martial artists.

The nameless homicidal martial artist, played by Darren Shahlavi, is a practitioner of several fighting styles and as it turns out, many hobbies. Among other activities, we see him strolling through a park snapping photos and later, admiring the talent at the local nudie bar. But there’s one pastime that’s giving the NYPD absolute fits. Like, other than the murdering. It’s his robust set of advanced computer skills. He sends cryptic, taunting emails to the station. He livestreams a murder and sends them a link to watch. I would guess he’s pretty good at Quake too.


Following in a long line of martial arts stars playing characters of the same name, Chuck Jeffreys plays Det. Chuck Baker. The time he doesn’t spend cracking jokes is used to perform archaic magic tricks like sneezing out flowers and producing flames from his hands. Also contributing to his lack of productivity on the case is that his work space is covered in karate magazines. Seriously, there isn’t an inch of visible desk or floor in his entire office. While some might point to his enthusiasm for the martial arts, I’d wager it’s more likely that he’s a compulsive hoarder. It’s only slightly better than accumulating malnourished cats.

Collecting back issues of Blackbelt magazine and doing sleight-of-hand on the city dime aren’t Baker’s biggest offenses. The department is much more concerned over his inability to turn over a clue or lead in the killer martial artist case. His direct superior, Chief Hutchins, is catching plenty of heat from the press for the lack of progress. With Hutchins, the film satisfies one of the basic tenets of b-grade American martial-arts film by casting recognizable television character Frank Gorshin in the role. I’m not sure if someone replaced all of the periods with exclamation points in Gorshin’s copy of the script, because he ends almost every line of dialogue by yelling angrily. Then I remember that his top detective sneezes flowers ... so I guess he has every right to be pissed all the time.


So Hutchins sends Baker to entice retired detective and profiler Ken O’Hara (Daniels) to join the investigation. Due to a traumatic past and his fragmented family situation, O’Hara is initially resistant. He softens his stance because you can’t have Gary Daniels in a movie and contain his natural instinct to fight people and pursue martial arts killers. It’s in his blood!

Initially, Baker and O’Hara don’t get along particularly well. Baker likes to make jokes, O’Hara is uptight. Baker carries a gun, O’Hara detests them. Baker sounds a lot like Eddie Murphy, O’Hara sounds like Jason Statham’s older, slightly more effeminate brother. In time, they discover common ground and are able to work together. Surprisingly, their love and practice of the martial arts is not this mutual interest, but rather the fact that they’re both crappy husbands who work too much. And much like my grandparents, they’re both completely confused by the concept of email.


When they’re not showing off their prowess during impressive fight scenes, Baker and O’Hara walk through a number of scenarios common to police procedural films. They play “good cop/bad cop” with a hacker, analyze wounds on dead bodies with a coroner, and pore over evidence. Through it all, they’re also trying to deflect involvement from the daughter of a slain martial artist (Rocci), who wants nothing more than to take vengeance for her father’s death. Considering the established buddy cop dynamic, this subplot was as useful to the story as tits on a cactus. However, it did lead to a pretty cool fight centered around some “refrigerator and cramped NYC apartment kitchen” choreography. I only wish it looked that cool when my wife beats me up for burning waffles.


The action in Bloodmoon ranges from solid to fantastic as Daniels, Jeffreys, and company are utilized to great effect by director Kuang Hsiung. A member and former vice chairman of the Hong Kong’s Stuntman Association, Hsiung’s fight choreography is tight, crisp, and fast, and his performers are up to the task. While Daniels and Shahlavi are both seasoned vets of Hong Kong action films, Jeffreys brings equally valuable experience as a fight choreographer and stuntman on Hollywood sets. There’s some fairly blatant wire-work during the climactic fight, but it’s not so defiantly unrealistic as to be offensive and the rest of the choreography during this stretch more than makes up for the visual missteps. We also get a very cool Kendo-influenced swordfight, complete with metallic sparks and sword clash sound effects. Most important, we get wrestling star Rob Van Dam dry-humping a girl on top of a pinball machine.


Action aside, the film is not without its narrative flaws. Most, if not all, of the story’s focus on computer technology comes off as clunky and half-baked. The killer’s apparent omnipresence is never fully explored and despite a very cool look (steel-tipped boots, cape, mask) he spouts off some pretty wretched villain cliches (among them: “Welcome to hell!” and “The end game has begun!”) There are some lazy stock characters as well -- the angry chief and the hacker-as-fat-pervert are the worst offenders -- but in pointing them out, it’s equally important to acknowledge that we’re watching mid-90s American martial arts here, not a Michael Mann crime thriller. That said, I still have no clue why Baker needed the magician background. That shit was creepy.


VERDICT:
Having not seen much of his other work, I’ll prematurely conclude that Bloodmoon is Gary Daniels’s best starring vehicle. He and Jeffreys have good chemistry and the fight scenes are well-choreographed. It’s a bit of a shame that Kuang Hsiung didn’t do more work in the American film industry; his direction is solid and his fight choreography is creative and visually engaging. He and Strandberg would team up again for 1997’s Superfights, but Bloodmoon is the better of the two and definitely deserving of your attention. Great action cast, solid plot, and RVD dry-humping a girl on a pinball machine.

AVAILABILITY:
A new copy might cost you a pretty penny, but you can get this shizz on Region 1 DVD via Amazon or EBay.

7 / 7

11.04.2010

Ring of Fire (1991)

PLOT:
Two groups of kickboxing meatheads are at war over bragging rights and ethnic pride. Amidst the chaos, romance begins to blossom between Don “The Dragon” Wilson and Maria Ford. Will the gang violence tear them apart? Will casual racism in Zubaz pants win out over vengeance in leather jackets? Does Maria Ford get naked or does she use a body double? These and more rhetorical questions answered henceforth.




Directors: Rick Jacobson & Richard W. Munchkin
Writers: Richard W. Munchkin, Jake Jacobs, Steve Tymon
Cast: Don “The Dragon” Wilson, Steven Vincent Leigh, Maria Ford, Dale Jacoby, Vince Murdocco, Gary Daniels, Eric Lee, Ron Yuan

PLOT THICKENER:
Omnia vincit amor: love conquers all. A phrase to live by, a song by Deep Purple, a horrible cliche, it is most commonly invoked to explain away the various problems and hindrances that accompany intimate relationships. Ring of Fire, a tale of kickboxing and forbidden love, encapsulates this age-old adage and a great deal more. While love yields an endless amount of good vibes, it can also kick you in the face, slap you during a funeral, and stab you with a samurai sword.


Enter Johnny Woo, played by Don “The Dragon” Wilson. As a doctor, he takes pride in healing the sick and injured. Recently, his cousin Terry (Leigh) and his social circle are supplying plenty of the latter. They compete in kickboxing matches on a regular basis with other local martial artists, and the tension between two distinct factions has boiled over like an unwatched cauldron of breast milk. One group is led by Terry and is predominantly of Chinese ancestry. They’re a fun-loving group of guys: there’s Terry, the strapping handsome dude who scores chicks, the wise-ass played by Ron Yuan, and martial-arts legend Eric Lee as the guy who loves to drink vodka straight. In other words: they’re your best friends from college! Minus the guy with the Dreamcast and the four-foot bong.


Their opposition is a group of monosyllabic whiteboys led by No Retreat, No Surrender alumni Dale Jacoby, playing a cocky prick named Brad. Filling out the ranks are Bud (ponytail-era Gary Daniels) and the perpetually pussywhipped Chuck (Murdocco). He’s engaged to Brad’s sister, Julie, and constantly deals with her whiny concerns about his fighting and the risk of injury. He also constantly deals with the fact she’s played by DTV hottie Maria Ford, who brings the 80s hotness like Mount St. Helens. The Aquanet, acid wash jeans, and belly shirts were out in full force. (On Ford, not the volcano).

The root of the hostility between the two crews is never really divulged, so we’re left to assume it stems from competitive spirit. Brad adds fuel to the fire by making cruel remarks about Asians at every opportunity and Terry’s crew is too prideful to let the digs go unpunished. As a result, the fists fly in a number of skirmishes, run-ins, and showdowns. Eventually, the leaders decide to settle things with a two-man battle. The training montages that precede the hyped fight between Terry and Brad leave a trail of shattered inanimate objects in their wake. There’s a pretty killer sequence with Brad slamming his flaming fist through a stack of dry ice, so I’m pretty sure Steven Vincent Leigh must have lost a bet to get stuck ... punching apples. There’s absolutely nothing cool or visually appealing about this. Worse yet, it’s a waste of perfectly good produce. I love apples.

Chuck’s involvement in the underground fights and the ongoing gang rivalry leads him to neglect Julie and she takes refuge at a local Chinese restaurant, where she crosses paths with Johnny. Their flirting turns into casual dating, and there’s a way goofy scene with Johnny showing up to a costume ball dressed as the Phantom of the Opera. As he and Julie exchange saucy glances across the dance floor, I couldn’t help but think about what other costumes Johnny might have considered. Frankenstein’s monster? Wolfman? Pregnant nun?

As the conflict between the two fighting crews escalates, Johnny is drawn into the fray and a persistent detective takes notice of the violence. Relationships are tested, customs are ignored, bad advice is given, and racks are unsheathed. In the only two love scenes in the film, Jacobson and Munchkin flash their art-house tendencies by intercutting footage of fighting and sex. The film student in me observes the visual blend of the fighters’ clenched fists and Julie’s sand-dollar areolas as an effective linking of sex and violence which demonstrates the duality of humans as both lovers and fighters. The film fan in me is shirtless, sweaty, and eating fistfuls of Fruity Pebbles from the box while watching freaky boobs and dudes hitting each other in the face.


Unfortunately, the fight choreography is pretty uninspired, which is a real shame considering the on-screen talent involved. Most fights are plagued by guys standing around getting hit and then reversing position; even in cases where there’s some drama behind the fisticuffs, there’s little to no visual flow at all. However, action movies are so often tagged with titles that have nothing to do with the plot, so I have to give credit to the filmmakers for putting an actual ring of fire in the film.

VERDICT:
This was the first Don Wilson movie I ever saw. More important, it was the first movie containing gratuitous nudity that I ever viewed on my grandmother’s premium cable package. So for these reasons, it will always be a sentimental favorite. There are a few goofy moments which add touches of flavor, and Wilson and Ford have a reasonable amount of chemistry as an on-screen pair. Leigh is definitely the best performer in the bunch and Jacoby is his usual unmenacing, goofy self. However, the fight scenes are a little too clunky, and the romance plot is a bit too generic to consider this anything other than your below-average facekicking escapade.

AVAILABILITY:
Easily trackdownable via Amazon or Netflix.

5 / 7

10.23.2010

Back in Action (1993)

PLOT: A botched drug sting takes a giant shit in the punch bowl called Life for cop Frank Rossi and a cab driver named Billy. Rossi’s partner is killed during the violent fallout. Billy’s sister is dating one of the drug dealers at the scene and escapes unharmed. Since she’s a witness, her boytoy’s gang thinks she’s going to snitch and wants her dead. As both men go vigilante to exact their revenge, the body count skyrockets to levels unseen since the launch of the McRib.

Directors: Paul Ziller and Steve DiMarco
Writer: Karl Schiffman
Cast: Billy Blanks, Roddy Piper, Bobbie Phillips, Matt Birman, Nigel Bennett, Kai Soremekun

PLOT THICKENER:
It should surprise no one to learn that the people behind the 1993 action vehicle Back in Action probably hate Looney Tunes. Not because they’re Hanna-Barbera guys (though they might be), but because their film is almost always buried in search results by Joe Dante’s 2003 animated feature, Looney Tunes: Back in Action. Are they justified in these hostile feelings that I made up and projected onto them? Doubtful.

Dante’s effort was the first Looney Tunes feature film since 1996’s Space Jam.  It was the second Looney Tunes feature to blend their 2-D characters with live action. The franchise was returning to action following a long layoff. Hence, Back in Action. Frank Rossi (Piper) is removed from an investigation by his boss and is forced to go rogue in order to get vengeance for his partner’s death. Billy (Blanks) is an ex- Special Forces soldier trying to rescue his sister from criminal drug dealers. But what exactly are these guys coming back from? A Caribbean cruise? Nasty colds? In light of the facts, this title makes no fucking sense. Thankfully, these types of action movies rarely do.


Billy Blanks really stretches himself artistically with this film role, portraying a high-kicking bad-ass named Billy. His years in the elite fighting ranks of the U.S. military somehow translated to him driving a cab in Toronto, and he has the added frustration of trying to support his deadbeat sister, Tara. She’s a real winner: won’t look for a job, has no discernible life skills, and dates a guy who looks more like a New Age percussionist than the drug-dealing gang member he purports to be. (Full disclosure: this describes all of my ex-girlfriends.) Since Tara fled the shootout with Billy instead of waiting patiently in the car until everyone exhausted their ammo, the gang wants her and her brother dead. When you want the job done right, you send in your top men with the best firepower money can buy. Because this is an early 90s Shapiro-Glickenhaus film, the gang sends a pair of unarmed twins in Zubaz pants, tank tops, mustaches, and mullets. Billy fights them in nothing more than his boxer briefs and kills them both. And detective Frank Rossi is left to pick up the pieces.


After watching his partner get stabbed to death during the botched sting, Rossi (Piper) is on a mission to bring his killer to justice. As the hardened narcotics detective, Piper gets to put his fingers in a lot of different pies: the chief-hating anti-authority pie, the street-fighting cop bent on vengeance pie, and also the Helen the news reporter pie, played by Bobbie Phillips. While Frank is her go-to cop for public comment, he’s also an evolving love interest. Most action films would use the romance as an excuse to show gratuitous nudity, but this is no ordinary action film. The closest we get is a picture on the back of the DVD showing the two in a bubble bath. In the film, the pair simply hangs around in towels and talks. Hmm.

Billy and Frank repeatedly cross paths as the former storms through the criminal underworld looking for Kasajian, the gang leader who he believes kidnapped his sister. (In reality, she’s gone into hiding with her loser boyfriend.) At first, Frank sees Billy as just another thug but begins to appreciate his brand of vigilante justice after learning of their common enemy.


When you have action heroes as unhinged as Piper and as skilled as Blanks, the villains in your story need to be equal to the task. Unfortunately, the baddies in Back in Action are pure villainfiller. Chakka, the dickweed in designer glasses who killed Wallace, consists of two-parts Color Me Badd and one-part giant gold medallion. His fighting skills are subpar and while he does some pretty evil shit in knifing people and shooting members of his own gang, I thought the character required a more grizzled and world-weary portrayal. He plays violent enforcer to Kasajian’s foppish mastermind, who spends most of his scenes in a robe and flip-flops. Played by British theatre actor Nigel Bennett, Kasajian is the type of villain I hate to see in this kind of movie: a relaxed and unmenacing douche who pontificates constantly and never actually fights. I could certainly see him running a meditation and spiritual wellness retreat. And I can’t help but imagine him standing in front of his mirror late at night doing the Buffalo Bill tuck-and-dance. But this is the vicious leader of a Toronto drug gang? Not buying.


The action throughout the film comes fast and furious. Piper, forever dogged by the high standards he set in 1988’s They Live, still brings his enjoyable blend of street-fighting and wrestling moves mixed with light comedy. His selling of strikes makes for some very convincing fights, particularly in an early skirmish with Billy at the local watering hole. Blanks operates almost exclusively in invincibility mode, growling and screeching as he mows down a variety of straw men. While none are a match for his fighting skill, they come in an entertaining array of shapes and sizes, from the mulleted Zubaz twins, to a dude that looks like Kenny Powers, to a 7-foot giant who yells a lot and moves really slowly.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t call out what has to be the crown jewel of Billy’s path of destruction. While infiltrating the late-night drag racing scene, he realizes he needs a more covert ensemble, as his all-denim motif would surely give him away. So he sneaks up on an unsuspecting dude leaning against a pillar who, at first glance, appears to be urinating. However, there’s no stream and his zipper is closed; worse, the man’s hand appears to be making a stroking motion. I can only conclude that in an effort to ward off would-be solicitors, the miscreant is pretending to jack off. Billy is unfazed, and he knocks out the phantom-masturbator and steals his sleeveless hoodie. Most of us would have simply walked away in that situation so this is quite commendable; that he’s willing to confront a guy faking a wank underscores Billy’s determination to bring his sister to safety.



Of course, we can’t discuss a Billy Blanks movie without mentioning his incredible outfits. As with most of his films, Blanks wears nothing more than pants and sweat during the story’s epic climax. The vibrant vest he sports in the opening scene is similar to the clothes my mom wore when she was experimenting with found fabrics and her new sewing machine circa 1989. During his bar fight with Rossi, he’s decked out in a full Canadian tuxedo, and spends the majority of the film wearing yet another vest, but without an undershirt. I rarely dip into hyperbole, but I’ll brave it here: Billy Blanks has done for vests and denim what Bruce Lee did for yellow-and-black tracksuits and Onitsuka Tiger sneakers.


VERDICT:
Tango and Cash. Bodhi and Utah. Tequila and Alan. Add Rossi and Billy to whatever random list of action cinema team-ups you have stuck to your fridge (assuming that’s where you keep it). While the weak and one-dimensional villains in Back in Action could have ruined lesser films, the combination of Piper and Blanks somehow cuts through these and other weaknesses. The filmmakers strike a nice balance in letting Blanks loose and building the majority of his scenes around his fighting prowess, while giving Piper plenty of scenery to chew in addition to some solid fight scenes of his own. This might actually be Blanks’ best good guy performance; he comes off as especially stiff when paired with equally wooden martial artists but Piper is animated and emotive enough to bring a little flavor to their team dynamic.

AVAILABILITY:
Your best bet is on VHS. Of course, you can try for an out-of-region DVD but you may have to sift through dozens of pages of Looney Tunes results to find it.

5.5 / 7

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