Directors: Lou Kennedy, Brandon Pender, Brandon De-Wilde
Writers: Wayne John, Raymond Mahoney
Cast: Jerry Trimble, Jonathan Ke Quan, Eddie Saavedra, Bolo Yeung, Ed Neil, TJ Storm, Drake Diamond
If you’re one of the millions of people who’ve pined to see Bolo Yeung dressed in full drag and later fight Short Round from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, then 1991’s Breathing Fire is here to make your filthy fantasies come true. The film is not unlike a fine jambalaya or any entree where you have free range to throw as much random shit in as you want. When cooked down and allowed to thicken, Breathing Fire is one of the most slapdash absurd action movies you’ll ever see.
Case in point, the film starts off with a shadowy figure seated at a table full of hundreds of fake plastic foods. Using a knife, he saws off a fake pepperoni from a fake pizza and kisses it.
Jerry Trimble stars as the villainous pepperoni-kissing Michael Moore. Calm down, conservatives: he’s not lampooning the populist documentary filmmaker. By day, Moore is a dedicated father to his adopted son, Charlie (Ke Quan) and his preferred son, Tony (Saavedra). After dropping the kids off at their latest karate tournament, he transforms into the leader of a gang of bank robbers.
After donning a clever disguise consisting of a moustache, a walking stick, and dark sunglasses, Moore and his friends launch into action. Each of his other four partners plays an crucial function during the operation, perhaps none more important than Thunder (Yeung), who stands in line with the customers while dressed as a mild-mannered 250-lb. Chinese grandma. Despite a firm warning, the teller goes for the alarm but gets punched for his efforts, the customers freak, people get fucked up, and the mayhem gives Thunder an opening to rip off his lady wig and rip out some poor banker’s hair.
Bolo is an absolute fright dressed as a woman, and I don’t know why his character opted for granny attire. The other disguises required nothing more than a moustache or a sports-coat. Thunder either lost a bet or just feels more liberated beating people up in a dress.
On the periphery in this latest burglary is Moore’s Vietnam combat buddy, Peter Stern (Diamond). As the bank’s manager and Michael’s tenuous insider ally, he’s a reluctant participant but offers up the vault’s code when Thunder pays him a visit in the men’s john. For this valuable contribution, Thunder slams Peter’s head in the bathroom door and then dunks his face in a toilet bowl of his own urine. That’s what you get for letting the yellow mellow, hippie.
The gang stashes the loot in a vault at a steel refinery, and we then discover the reason for the fake plastic pizza. Moore uses it to make an imprint of the vault’s keys on the underside of the pizza, destroys the originals, and then distributes each pizza piece to the gang members. Only after things have settled down and and the group reconvenes will everyone get their share. Most will find this plot device not so much clever as it is indicative of fake foods being easy props to come by for a low-budget film production.
That night, Peter returns home to his wife and daughter and they react in horror to his facial welts and urine odor. He’s like, “whatever, just another Wednesday” and retires to his study to pack away his piece of fake pizza. He gives his daughter, Annie, an envelope and tells her to go mail it and gives his wife the pimp-hand when she suggests they call the police. On her way to the mailbox, Annie is distracted outside by wandering swans in bow-ties and party hats and is luckily absent when Moore’s gang pays a visit to the Sterns’ front door. Not surprisingly, they kill Peter and his wife. Did I mention this all happens on his birthday?
The intended recipient of the aforementioned envelope is David Moore, an alcoholic mechanic who sleeps under newspapers at his workplace and drives around town in a 1988 Ford Molester Van (S Series). When Annie visits him to drop off the letter, he’s puzzled by the piece of plastic pizza and the plot thickens when a few goons posing as cops stop by and ask for Annie. Action ensues and the flood of danger prompts Dave and Annie to drive off to a safe-house: his brother Michael’s pad. (Dun dun dun!)
Michael and David, via clumsy flashback, reminisce over their Vietnam days and we see how Michael came to adopt his Asian son. Apparently, if you killed someone in combat, it was common decency to adopt their orphaned children and bring them back to America. After spending his tour of duty fighting Viet Cong enemies, Michael thought it appropriate to name this Vietnamese boy “Charlie.”
At any rate, the teenage brothers are excited to finally meet their Uncle Dave and express interest in mooching off his fighting wisdom. In time, he begrudgingly teaches them how to punch phonebooks and watermelons and sweat a lot while having their shins hardened by bottles and bricks. Among other quality opponents, they test their new skills against some dwarf bartenders and a fat, clumsy gang member living with his blind mother. (Tony and Charlie can be real assholes).
As all of these unstable elements collide, Michael gets increasingly paranoid and evil, Charlie goes through a brief identity crisis, Dave gets progressively drunker and more suspicious of his brother, and Thunder stands around killing life with his cold stares and pectoral flexing because he’s Bolo Motherfucking Yeung.
The action scenes in Breathing Fire are fairly good. The fights are fast, fluid, and choreographed well. While horrible editing usually sinks these scenes, it somehow enhances them here. Bolo is fantastic, Trimble is his usual kick-happy self, and Ed Neil was a really pleasant surprise. Apart from the great climax, there’s a hokey but enjoyable dance-club brawl, two little people who clearly studied the book on Comedic Midget Wrestling Moves, and no less than ten people flying through glass panels or breakaway tables.
The film was helmed by three directors, and while this might be a clever way to disperse the blame for a shoddy production, it’s an efficient way to divide up the day’s work. Kennedy: you take the scenes with the robotic line delivery where the actors fail to emote properly. De-Wilde: you film the scenes where someone is getting thrown through glass. Pender: shoot the oily training scenes and the unnecessary tournament fights in the middle school gymnasium. Of the three, only Pender would continue a career in film production, and with credits like UWF Fury Hour producer and Steele Justice sword fight coordinator, it’s not hard to see why.
While Breathing Fire is dogged by poor production value, it’s easily the best film to utilize random movie props clearly stolen off a studio lot. The unintentional comedic highs of the movie are among the best ever filmed in the American martial-arts genre; in an ocean of schlock, this is no easy feat. All the requisite trademarks of a fine Gruyere punchfighting film are here: bad editing, weak writing, visible mats, training montages, cardboard boxes, a random dance/exterior painting scene from TJ Storm, awesomely bad line delivery, and convoluted plot points. This film is an absolute rip-roaring treasure of action cinema. Go queue this up now, put the beers on ice, and invite over all your friends. If you don’t have friends, get a hooker and force her to watch this movie with you. She’ll love it, especially if she’s on drugs.
Amazon, Ebay, Youtube, Netflix.
6 / 7