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