Live by the Fist (1993)

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

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.

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.


Readily available via Amazon and Netflix.

5.5 / 7 


Bloodmoon (1997)

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

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.

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.

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


Ring of Fire (1991)

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

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.

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.

Easily trackdownable via Amazon or Netflix.

5 / 7

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