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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