Director: ‘Philthy' Phil Phillips
Writers: Stan Derain, ‘Philthy' Phil Phillips
Cast: Stan Derain (as MC Kung Fu), ‘Philthy' Phil Phillips (as Philthy Phil), Kathy Barbour, John Williams, John J. Haran, Fawn Reed
While often overlooked, musical moments in American martial-arts film are rather common. As noted in our review of No Retreat, No Surrender, J.W. Fails as RJ Madison performed two choreographed dances along with a freestyle rap. Marc Dacascos crooned his way into our hearts near the climax of 1997’s Drive. Perhaps most famously, Jean-Claude Van Damme’s drunken dance number in 1989’s Kickboxer is the stuff of YouTube legend. However, virtually no martial-arts film takes the musical element to quite the same extreme as 1995’s City Dragon.
The Home Dogs are a group of twentysomething urban dwellers who constantly spit rhymes and have serious game with the city’s females. First up, there’s Philthy Phil (Phillips), the crew’s requisite fashion plate and he’s cooler than the other side of the pillow if you’re sleeping outside at night in Manitouwadge in November. Then there’s Rick (Williams), the short, annoying, white tag-along (Turtle?) whose rapping explanation of the word “wigga” will leave you scratching your head as to why his black friends tolerate him.
Trumping both of these guys as head lothario and de facto leader of the trio is Ray (Derain.) The muscle of the group and real hero of the story, we learn that much like his idol Bruce Lee, Ray is not a man to be fucked with. After a fender-bender with a group of gang-bangers in the film’s opening, he stares blankly as the driver points a gun in his face and shouts “eff [this]” and “motherfuck [that]”. Ray calmly removes his ill-fitting tank top and in less than a minute, the entire gang has been floored by a dizzying array of kicks, punches, and throws.
If Sho‘nuff of The Last Dragon fame could be said to have dipped a toe in the vast pool of rhyme-as-dialog, The Home Dogs dive in head-first with snorkels and swimmies. In lieu of verbiage that actually moves the story forward, The Home Dogs perform most of their dialog as a capella raps. While the novelty quickly wears off, Derain & Company should be commended for foreseeing the entire subculture of corny guys standing around and pretending they’re characters in 8 Mile.
For reasons unknown, the trio is able to regularly score attractive females using rhymes that will have you clambering for the poignant lyricism of Brian Austin Green. More than that, their outfits are completely ridiculous. Ray regularly rocks a sportscoat over his tank top. Sleeves rolled up. While wearing weightlifting gloves. During a night out on the town, Philthy Phil wears a ship captain’s cap with parachute pants and a shirt straight out of the shopping scene from European Vacation. But as many males know, constantly hooking up with clubrats and big-breasted women in sweatpants on their way to the gym loses its luster. For a little while anyways.
Contrary to his usual hunting routine, Ray meets a pretty girl named Tina (Barbour) in the park in the middle of the day. Despite his intoxicating rhymes, she doesn’t immediately hand over the keys and deed to the Chateau-du-Vagina so he’s completely transfixed. In time, they begin to date. Unfortunately, Tina has an abusive boyfriend named John (Haran) who humiliates, hits, and degrades her on a regular basis. He also works at a restaurant at the mall, which goes a long way in explaining his constant anger. She attempts a clean break with her abuser, but he’s a stage four hanger-on and it’s only a matter of time before he and Ray come to blows over Tina’s love.
John rounds up a group of goons and confronts Tina, Ray and rest of his crew one night out at the club. Ray ultimately triumphs, but in the chaos of the fight, Philthy Phil is stabbed. While the wound proves non-fatal, it’s enough to drive Ray to the point of insanity. During a tense scene at his apartment, he does a complicated nunchucks routine to blow off steam and wigs out at his new girlfriend for bringing the mercurial John into their lives.
City Dragon isn’t all fucking and fighting though; it’s social drama at its most heavy-handed. Tina discovers she’s pregnant but despite having no idea whether the baby is his, Ray vows to marry her. Upon hearing the news of his ex-girlfriend’s pending nuptials, John goes on a murderous (somewhat hilarious) workplace rampage and is committed to an asylum for the mentally disturbed. Overreaction on his part? Sure. But John would get along great with Tina’s father, who kicks her out of the house when she refuses to abort his new grandchild (“You screwed me as an embryo now you’re screwing me as an adult.”) Perhaps worse, the lack of an effective sexual harassment policy at Ray’s workplace threatens both his fidelity and his paycheck.
The amount of social issues covered in City Dragon -- domestic violence, promiscuity, race relations, abortion, road rage, gang life, the American justice system, mental illness, harassment in the workplace -- would be enough for at least 18 hour-long A&E specials. While one can criticize it for this kind of over-saturation, you’d have to search high and low for any other martial-arts film that touches on one or two of these issues, let alone enough to cover every defensive position in baseball.
It goes without saying that the most critical element of any martial-arts film is the use of martial arts. The action scenes in City Dragon primarily consist of one guy with martial arts experience vs. many guys who learned how to fall an hour before the cameras started rolling. I can’t knock Derain at all because he has A LOT of scenes involving nunchucks, which I absolutely loved. However, I do think that the lack of an equally (or moderately) skilled counterpart hurt the action scenes. There’s a decent climactic blow-off between the crazed John and Ray, but the former doesn’t bring enough to the table physically for this be as dramatic as it could have been. It should be mentioned that this is the only fight for which Derain doesn’t remove his shirt.
Stan Derain’s next motion picture, currently in production, is entitled War of the Dragon. The cast of buxom beauties -- including but not limited to Jenna Jameson, Traci Bingham, and Verne Troyer -- would seem to indicated that Derain is sticking to a tried and true formula of loose plots, hot women, and his special brand of action mayhem. And Mini-Me. If this is anything but incredibly awesome, I will eat my shoe. (No easy task: my shoe is a high-top Reebok Pump.)
What The Room is to the independent drama, City Dragon is to the independent action film. It’d be easy to shitcan a film like this according to the standards by which one would usually assess a film, but I give the filmmakers credit. With a low budget and an obviously inexperienced cast, it’s a foregone conclusion that they failed to make a “good film.” However haphazardly, they instead made a modern martial-arts cult classic that unites elements of comedy, musical, social drama, and action. Think of City Dragon as a low-budget version of The Last Dragon for the new jack swing era.
Netflix, Amazon, EBay.