12.23.2010

Talons of the Eagle (1992)

PLOT: Two cops -- one from Canada, the other from New York -- train in the specialized martial art of Eagle Claw in order to enter a fighting tournament organized by Mr. Li, a Toronto criminal overlord. As they penetrate Li’s inner circle, they must gather evidence, avoid suspicion, and hook up with as many foxy ladies as Li throws at them.

Director: Michael Kennedy
Writer: J. Stephen Maunder
Cast: Billy Blanks, Jalal Merhi, James Hong, Priscilla Barnes, Matthias Hues, Eric Lee, Harry Mok, Kelly Gallant, Qingfu Pan 


PLOT THICKENER:
What do you get when you add 10% worth of martial-arts actors, 10% of James Hong, 20% of Priscilla Barnes, and 70% of blue lighting gels? You get 1992’s Talons of the Eagle. And yes, I realize the aforementioned percentages add up to 110%. But you’ve failed to account for the fact that Billy Blanks always gives 130% and Jalal Merhi only gives about 80% and Canada has the metric system. I’m no math major, but I’m pretty sure you’re not either, so let’s move on.

In brandishing a golden cavalcade of b-movie martial-artists -- Billy Blanks, Harry Mok, Eric Lee, Jalal Merhi, Kelly Gallant, and Matthias Hues -- Talons of the Eagle is something of a dream cast of action talent. Throw in character actors James Hong and Priscilla Barnes, some gratuitous nudity, a silly early 90s score, and you have what should have been an action trash classic. Unfortunately, the elements of the film don’t quite coalesce the way they should.


FoBL favorite Billy Blanks stars as Tyler Wilson, a tough NYC narcotics cop. His counterpart across the border is Michael Reed, played by ponytailed former jeweler Jalal Merhi. Within the first five minutes of the film, each of them manages to botch drug stings in riveting fashion, except that Reed’s fuck-up leads to DEA cops getting killed. Tyler is sent to Toronto by his superiors to partner with Reed and infiltrate the gang held responsible.

The easiest route for access is a martial-arts tournament put on by the gang’s leader, Mr. Li (Hong). But before entering the tournament, they need better training, so they seek out an Eagle Claw academy. Real-life asskicker Qingfu Pan, who once trained Hong Kong police cadets in fighting techniques, plays the school’s master. His acting doesn’t quite leapfrog Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy, but he’s here for his fighting widsom and his grizzled knuckles tell the story: he’s either punched a lot of people or has a gnarly bacterial infection.


After they do some fancy tournament fighting and break up an attempt on Li’s life, Tyler and Reed catch the gang-leader’s eye and he brings them into the fold as muscle. The bossman’s main lady, Cassandra (Barnes) acts as their guide but Li’s existing henchmen Khan (Hues) and Niko (Mok) are a little perturbed by the new help, with the former being particularly suspicious. The rest of the film follows Tyler and Reed trying to collect evidence under the gang’s watchful eye while carrying out Li’s orders and performing poorly-acted martial artist love scenes with female cast members.

As Mr. Li, James Hong is mostly excellent. The businessman-as-evildoer is nothing new in this genre, but Hong’s performance walks the line between sleaze and sophistication and it acts as a cohesive superglue that prevents an otherwise poorly made film from completely falling apart. He gets to show a fair amount of range too: he’s suave, he jokes with glee, he flies off the handle, fires off glocks, and looks mad cool while ripping through about seven packs of Pall Malls in the 97-minute runtime. Hong can and does act circles around everyone else in his scenes, but he also plays off them well enough to make their stiffness believable in the context of an aged criminal ordering around the hired muscle. Though for all his infinite criminal wisdom, he should have known better than to light a fucking cigarette in a tiny storage room full of C4 explosives.


While lacking speed and creativity, the fighting sequences during the climax still win points on settings and death blows. In typical martial-arts film fashion, characters pair off for individual battles which, for obvious reasons, vary wildly in quality. With Master Pan and company rushing in for the assist, we get a decent little weapons battle between Pan and Eric Lee. It’s rare you get an on-screen fight between such decorated real-life fighters, so it’s a bit of a bummer that the fight is short, slow, and like most of the fights, poorly shot and edited. Pan’s student, played by Kelly Gallant, gets an brief and boring fight that underscores how poorly utilized she was in the film.

Tyler and Niko have a pretty good scuffle in a restaurant kitchen with Niko bringing out his nifty giant-fucking-knife technique, which Tyler tries to counter with every piece of kitchenware he can find, up to and including the very same mesh strainer my wife has been asking for since last Christmas. It is not customary to see any man fighting someone off with a mesh strainer, nevermind a black-belt and fitness-craze inventor. Perhaps worse, he actually throws fistfuls of salad to fend off his attacker. Nay, TOSSES SALAD.

The real crown jewel of the fights is a battle between Blanks and Hues in a parking garage. Shit starts off with Hues walking into frame with an oil barrel raised over his head screaming like a maniac and we know from the jump that it’s on like Donkey Kong. Because of the barrel, see? Both guys are shirtless and bathed in the omnipresent blue light that plagues 90% of the film and all of this would be cheesy enough were it not for the delicious saxophone music that accompanies the throwdown.


During all of this, Reed is fighting Mr. Li on a roof. Keep in mind that Hong was on the wrong side of 60 at this point in his career and was using a folding fan as a weapon. How is it then plausible that a cop and martial-arts master in his physical prime needs more than 60 seconds to beat an elderly businessman using eight ounces of bamboo and paper to fight? Errrrrr?

While dramatic performers are often underutilized in films like this, it’s not always the case that they’re humiliated for their efforts. Not only is Priscilla Barnes subjected to an attempted rape scene, but she’s also forced to act alongside Jalal Merhi while he’s adorned in a ghastly Jockey banana hammock. And this is before they have random shower sex in which Merhi kisses her as if he were eating mashed potatoes with his hands tied behind his back. So not only does Barnes now have “Three’s Company replacement cast member” on her resume, but also “poorly acted martial artist shower sex.” She really does deserve better.


VERDICT:
You expect films like this to be poorly produced but there’s always a potential for choice moments that somehow elevate it above average fare. They’re few and far between in Talons of the Eagle. Outside of some lines from Hong, there’s very little quotable dialogue and Merhi and Blanks make a poor pair and their dynamic isn’t conflictual enough to be interesting. Worst of all, director Michael Kennedy and his editing team do a huge disservice to the fighting talent because the hand-to-hand action didn’t look so hot. The constant blue lighting was also a huge and distracting negative. While you get a decent villain performance from James Hong, this is probably only for Blanks completists.

AVAILABILITY:
Amazon, Netflix, bargain bins.

3.5 / 7


12.16.2010

Fist of Feature: The Holiday Wish List of Fury

Season’s Greetings! It’s that festive time of year when we drink too much egg-nog, eat too much Chanukah gelt, and air grievances that destroy relationships with friends and family.

In the spirit of the season, and because I’m a greedy prick, I thought it’d be appropriate to go over a short list of gifts I’m hoping to receive over the holidays.






Zubaz Pants
This fashion staple has been well-documented both here and in Google images searches for “road warriors AND dan marino.” Once the pants of choice for football players and pro wrestlers, Zubaz pants also caught fire with the martial-arts set in the late 1980s and early 90s. I’m ashamed to admit that I never owned a pair, though I did have one or two pairs from Zubaz’s primary rival, the checkered nightmares known as Skidz. After all these years, which brand is left standing in the popular conscience? FUCKYEAHZUBAZ.



Jewelry by Jalal Merhi
Action film director and actor Jalal Merhi apparently sold his share of a profitable jewelry business in order to break into film and form his production company, Film One. We haven’t covered any of his films yet, but if he was able to turn a profit as a jeweler, he’s definitely a better businessman than he is an actor. What would Jalal jewelery even look like? Necklaces weaved from the hair of his on-again/off-again ponytail? A golden medallion in the visage of Bolo Yeung? The possibilities are endless … and also poorly written, underlit, and have James Hong as the lead villain.




Expect No Mercy: The Game
Growing up during the SNES era, I loved fighting games, even the shitty ones. Shaq-Fu and Rise of the Robots found themselves on the same shelf as Street Fighter 2 Turbo and Killer Instinct. To my great surprise, I learned that Jalal Merhi’s 1996 film Expect No Mercy (also starring Billy Blanks) had a companion fighting game released on PC. I don’t believe anything I read on the Internet, particularly cross-promotional efforts for DTV sci-fi martial arts movies released during the 1990s, so I did some additional research (on the Internet) and confirmed it. Based on the clip below, the Expect No Mercy game is Mortal Kombat II’s poorly designed, underdeveloped, visually unimpressive copycat of a little brother. In other words, it’ll look great next to Kasumi Ninja and that first World Heroes port.




That Book Gary Daniels Was Reading in Bloodmoon
Remember the end of Pulp Fiction where John Travolta was taking a shit in the diner while the robbery was taking place? He was reading the first book in the infamous Modesty Blaise series. I didn’t buy this book and never read it. But I love seeing books appear in films and trying to figure out why a filmmaker would include them or how the book’s story might relate to the film’s narrative. More than that, I love adding said books to lists that I always fail to consult when purchasing books. I still have no idea why The Witness, Sandra Brown's thriller about a public defender who discovers a terrible secret about her new husband, was included in Bloodmoon. I think Gary Daniels was just trying to look well-read.




Keith Cooke’s Korflex Body Revolution 
While I’m no slouch (Tang Soo Do yellow belt FTW!) I’m no ironman either. January is a popular time of year for people to dedicate themselves to getting in shape. Anytime is a popular time of year for martial artists to launch new fitness crazes. For those and other reasons, I’m really itching to try the Korflex Body Revolution home fitness system by Keith Cooke of King of the Kickboxers and China O’Brien fame. Will it make me as physically fit as one of the best on-screen facekickers of all time? With a price tag of $40, and with the amount of beer I drink, probably not.





Billy’s Boot Camp DVD Box Set
While Chuck Norris may have beaten him to the fitness craze punch with his endorsement of the Total Gym system, Billy Blanks remains the only martial-arts actor to attain success with a true fitness phenomenon. His Tae Bo work-out demonstrated that pretending to beat the shit out of an invisible opponent was a great way to get in shape. However, I’ll let you in on a little secret: I used to do this all the time as a kid. I emulated my favorite action stars and pro wrestlers in my yard or basement but no one looked at that and said: “Hey, that looks like a great way to get in shape!” or “That’s a million-dollar fitness craze waiting to happen.” They said “what the fuck is wrong with that little jerk in the Skidz pants?” or “is that little jerk in the Skidz pants having a seizure?” In the world of business, the only thing separating the little jerk in the Skidz pants from the multi-millionaire fitness guru is clever marketing.



To all of our readers, Internet friends, and people who totally forgot they subscribed to the RSS feed, have a truly happy holidays!

12.14.2010

American Kickboxer 1 (1991)

PLOT:
A disgraced former kickboxing champion must rebuild his life after going to prison. In his absence, his arch-rival rises the ranks and taunts him from his perch atop the middleweight kickboxing world, where he has a nice view of the ocean, a brand-new dog park, and his own house.

Director: Frans Nel
Writers: John Barrett, Emil Kolbe
Cast: John Barrett, Keith Vitali, Brad Morris, Terry Norton, Ted Le Plat, Len Sparrowhawk, Roger Yuan


PLOT THICKENER:
If you watched nothing but Gary Daniels or Cynthia Rothrock movies, you might be lulled into thinking that kickboxing exists only as a tool of violence and retribution within the world of drug runners, serial killers, terrorists, Communists, and crooked authority figures. I actually do watch nothing but Daniels and Rothrock movies, so I was surprised to learn that kickboxing is an actual sport too.

BJ Quinn, played by Chuck Norris acolyte and b-movie veteran John Barrett, is an aged champion kickboxer at the back-end of elite status in his career. After a hard-fought victory over middleweight contender Chad Hunter (Vitali) he and other figures from the kickboxing universe attend an after-party hosted by his promoter (Sparrowhawk). Unfortunately, young punk upstart Jacques Denard (Morris) hits on Quinn’s lady, Carol (Norton) during the festivities and roughs her up when she rejects his advances. Quinn responds with shit-faced aggression but before things reach a boiling point, he lashes out at a bystander trying to break up the scuffle. The clumsy oaf flails his way through a shoddily constructed glass table and later dies in a hospital. You might say: “how can someone die from falling through a glass table?” But you need to remember this was the early 90s. The medical community was almost entirely focused on combating AIDS and probably had no one on staff qualified to treat his cuts and scrapes.


The fallout from this accident is devastating for Quinn. While Hunter vouches for his character at the trial, Denard offers deceptive testimony to muddy the waters. The judge hands down a stiff 12-month prison sentence and bans him from all title fights for the next five years, which effectively ends Quinn’s prime. No more electrifying kicks. No more girlish screams to pump up the crowd between rounds. No more Roger Yuan and the guy with puffy mullet as his corner men.

Upon Quinn’s release from prison, Carol picks him up from the clink in his old sportscar, but despite the show of loyalty it’s obvious Quinn is a changed man. He stands in silence in front of his fish tank wearing nothing but tighty whities. He drinks constantly, sometimes by himself. His relationship with Carol is rocky at best, and his newly formed friendship with former opponent Hunter is tenuous and marked by bickering. Quinn further isolates himself in an effort to reconstruct his identity as a person, not a fighter, but he continues to struggle with the absence of kickboxing glory.

Monitoring most of this and other kickboxing happenings is a newspaper reporter named Willard (Le Plat). He wants nothing more than to get a headline about middleweight kickboxing on his newspaper’s front page and will do just about anything to get it. Well, he doesn’t blow or blackmail anyone. But he’s pretty much a stalker who harasses every fighter he can find for quotes or backstage dirt. Because of this, he has a contentious relationship with virtually everyone, and Denard in particular has it in for him. As a character, Willard wasn’t entirely necessary but it allowed Nel to integrate a lot of modified newspaper headlines.


Despite his status as new champion, Denard doesn’t have a desire to be the best so much as he wants to be better than Quinn. He goes out of his way to antagonize him and his arrogant sense of entitlement is on full display throughout the film. He turns up to formal soirees in tank tops and ill-fitting pants, wears dark sunglasses during a court testimony, threatens kids seeking autographs, and even headbutts an innocent locker door. While all of this sufficiently characterizes Denard’s dickishness, Morris so thoroughly embraces the character’s traits that we can’t help but be entranced. Much of an audience’s hatred for a villain is set in motion by a single event but Denard is such a complete and utter asshole in everything he says and does that you legitimately want to see him beaten to death. And he has horizontal lines shaved into his head, which is OK if it’s 1991 and you’re nine years-old. But give Denard a pair of Ray Bans and some skinny jeans and he’s pretty much every hipster douche you’ve wanted to see step in dog shit and into oncoming traffic.


As a fighter, Denard is talented but his strategies in the ring are unconventional. At the start of matches, he allows his opponents to land a few strikes in order to get pumped up. Following that, he typically drives them into the ropes or the corner and hammers away until they’re knocked out or the ref gets between them. That said, he’s not above including cheap shots in his arsenal either. All the while, he plays to the crowd while decked out in teal tights under a colorfully patterned banana hammock and flowy tassles. The result is one of the more colorful martial arts villains of the era, and it’s a shame Morris’s skills as both actor and fighter weren’t put to better use in additional films. This was his last film role and he hasn’t been heard from since. It’s unlikely that you’d see Bolo Yeung or Michel Qissi giving this nuanced of a performance (especially in thongs with tassles) so Morris deserves to be lauded for his efforts.


The fights in the film are light on creative choreography and heavy on dodging, bobbing, and weaving. While certainly realistic in the context of a kickboxing match, it isn’t all that interesting to watch unfold on the screen, though all of these guys are good fighters. However, Hunter and Quinn deserve special recognition for some intense training montages. While they don't reach quite the same sweaty and rippling heights, the film contains the most homoerotic jogging scenes since Balboa and Creed in Rocky III.

VERDICT:

Because of the bad hair, bad fashion, and goofy montages, there was great potential here for the film to flail about in a vast pool of piping hot Gruyere … and it still does, at times. But the story and strong performances from Morris and Barrett elevate it above the trappings of its place and era to exist as an average-to-solid redemptive sports story. Audiences have seen this Rocky-style arc done bigger and better elsewhere -- like in, uh.... Rocky -- but Nel is somehow able to forge cohesion with the film’s elements and it results in a fairly entertaining watch.

AVAILABILITY:
Freely available via Amazon and Netflix. Tassles and thong not included.

5 / 7

12.05.2010

Terminator Woman (1993)

PLOT:
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

PLOT THICKENER:
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.

VERDICT:
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.

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

5 / 7

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...