It’s a race against time as a mulleted martial-arts killer named Stingray is pursued by police and a street-fighting waitress avenging her sister’s death. How long will the carnage go on before Stingray is stopped? Only 90 minutes, because that’s the runtime of the film.
Director: Godfrey Ho
Writer: Steve Harper, Robert Vassar, Tai Yim
Cast: Cynthia Rothrock, Don Niam, John Miller, Donna Jason, Sunny David, Gerald Klein
The cost of attending college has steadily risen each decade for the last 30 years. Grants and scholarships can help, but the supply for these financial gifts is limited. As a result, many students and their families take out huge loans in order to pay for tuition. Those who can’t absorb that kind of debt might instead attend community college, or in some cases, forgo higher education entirely. Still, others pay their way through school by working part-time.
In Godfrey Ho’s 1993 epic Undefeatable, pre-med student Karen Jones can’t be bothered to get off her ass and get a fucking job. Instead, her older sister, Kristi, battles in underground Baltimore street fights for her tuition money. (Street fighter ranks #3 on experts’ annual list of jobs for easy college cash, sandwiched between library assistant and stripper). Kristi’s involvement in the world of street fighting is certainly not without its hazards. The money is dirty and fights are organized and overseen by mobsters. The fighters are often desperate men dressed in accessories culled from yard sales. Worse, the cops are always on the hunt to break up the illegal throwdowns. After all, it’s not like there are worse things going on in Baltimore.
It’s during the latest of these fights that Kristi crosses paths with Nick DiMarco. Martial arts enthusiast, homicide detective, basketball fan, and overpriced coffee lover, DiMarco is a straight-laced cop who sees nothing but dead ends in Kristi’s choice of thug life. After arresting her for fighting and then pocketing her winnings, he encourages her to reject the horrible cycle of violence and quit her gang, the Red Dragons. Like the Bloods and Crips before them, the Dragons are fond of leather jackets, aren’t enrolled in college, and are comprised mostly of Asian guys. Despite protests from DiMarco and her sister, Kristi doesn’t want to quit fighting only to die poor and feeble. In her mind, waitressing and fighting in the streets fit together to form a Voltron of financial stability.
Perched atop the higher end of the underground fighting circuit is Paul, better known by his street name of Stingray. While his life would appear to be pure bliss -- big paydays, Plymouth minivan, no children -- his wife, Anna, has been seeing a therapist and spilling the beans about her hubby’s increasingly violent behavior. Flowers in hand, he returns home after his latest fight to find his wife cooking steak for dinner. But Stingray’s in the mood for a different kind of meat: Sweet and Sour Anna with Pineapple & Rape Sauce. During the entirety of the sexual assault, Stingray reminisces about pummeling a recently vanquished opponent while the steak burns in the background. Only a director of Godfrey Ho’s skill would dare offer this kind of visual commentary on rape, violence, and overcooked meat. What's the significance? I DON’T KNOW!
This was apparently the tipping point, however. Stingray arrives home the next night to find his favorite meal of veggies and steak carefully arranged at the dinner table. After an angry search of the residence, he finds a letter from Anna declaring that she’s left him for good. Just like his mother years earlier, his wife has abandoned him. As one would expect, he’s supremely butt-hurt and tosses everything on the table to the floor with a violent swipe of his forearm. But prior to that, he picks up the slab of cooked meat and throws it against the wall; the allure of beef is apparently gone. After all, what good is a steak if you can’t rape your wife while thinking about beating someone up before eating it?
After spraypainting red streaks in his hair (Anna would’ve loved it) Stingray gasses up the minivan and departs on the Illogical Rampage of Murder, Rape, and Eye-Gouging ‘93. DiMarco and his bumbling partner investigate the string of homicides and eventually deduce that the killer targets petite white women with long, reddish hair: i.e. girls that look like Stingray’s ex-wife if you’re legally blind or murderously psychotic. Unfortunately, Karen Jones fits this bill and becomes a card-carrying member of the victim club. Because it’s a martial-arts film, Kristi vows revenge, and DiMarco and Jennifer, Anna’s former psychiatrist, join in the hunt. She also knows martial arts. Obviously.
The fight scenes throughout the film fall within the range of awful to average but it’s somehow passable by early 90s American action standards. The obvious crown jewel is the now-infamous climax between Stingray, DiMarco, and Kristi; on-screen fights rarely get as sweaty, screamy, and drooly as this one. (Braveheart comes close, but didn’t have nearly enough drool.)
There are a few things at work that really distinguish it from similarly crafted B-grade action pictures from the same period. As many martial arts films utilize vengeance as a major theme, audiences are accustomed to seeing the roots of a protagonist’s journey to right the wrongs. Ho and the film’s writers flip the script by injecting the villain’s backstory with some bizarre semblance of pathos. Stingray has mommy issues on steroids with a crystal meth chaser. The few flashbacks to his childhood allude to abandonment and while I’m not a psychiatrist, I’d guess this would lead to relationship trouble later in life. In the case of Stingray, I’m not sure how it led to a propensity for rape, murder, and eye-gouging, but hey -- different strokes, different folks.
Don Niam really makes the Stingray character his own: he has a gloriously puffy mullet, plays scenes completely over the top, and is a decent enough martial artist to hold his own during fights. Rothrock is generally solid, and even gets a grieving/crying scene to show off her ability to emote awkwardly while staring at a fake dead body. The Nick DiMarco character is almost instantly unlikeable because of his wholesome righteousness, and while John Miller is a decent enough fighter, his performance vacillates between wooden and goofy before settling on inept.
As a diehard NRNS fan, it pains me to say this: Undefeatable may be the most enjoyable “so bad it’s good” martial arts film I’ve seen. The star of the show is obviously Stingray -- this is a character that should inspire fan fiction. Little kids should be dressing up in denim vests and puffy mullet wigs for Halloween. And for fuck’s sake, give me a Stingray t-shirt with “ANNA!” underneath. But all of the film’s elements coalesce beautifully: the convoluted serial killer plot is a joy to watch unfold; the early 90s fashion staples of leather jackets, Zubaz pants, and denim vests are on full display; and the climactic fight scene is one of the most hilarious things captured on celluloid.
There are actually two versions of the film on the market: the U.S. print reviewed here, and a version for the Asian market that features scenes with Robin Shou and Yukari Oshima. Netflix carries the former and Amazon offers both versions.
7 / 7