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.
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