Director: Stefan Rudnicki
Cast: David Heavener, Kamar de los Reyes, Chris Ramsey, Bambi Swayze, James Hurd, Chance Michael Corbitt
The first act is absolutely critical to films. It’s an opportunity for the director to set the plot and tell the audience who characters are and why they’re important. More specifically, for the martial-arts film, it’s a limited window in which to grab your audience’s attention through physical spectacle and define the film’s stylistic approach to action. Failure to do these things effectively within the first 25 to 30 minutes is a huge misstep from which a film rarely recovers. Despite its weird charm, the 1991 David Heavener film For Hire is a 90-minute roundhouse misstep to the balls.
Our film opens with a group of extras shuffling awkwardly to live golden-era rap music in a dance club. A dangerous gang of three people make their entrance and start pointing at various dancers in the crowd. As they start beating up random people for no reason, the featured rappers continue to pop and lock, as if shit like this happens every night. The other members of this same dangerous Chinatown gang run every play in the criminal handbook: they snatch purses, rob apartments, steal cars, deal drugs, pimp out hookers, and kill cops with glee. They also perform complicated group Tai Chi exercises at night-time on the city’s quiet rooftops.
Long story short: the criminal activity in Chinatown is escalating and the city’s police department doesn’t have the resources to do anything about it. The police commissioner informs the mayor with the unpleasant news under the most appropriate of circumstances … at a sweet 16 birthday party for the mayor’s adopted South Asian daughter, Corrine. Also in attendance is J.D. Makay (Heavener), karate instructor to the mayor’s young son Will (Corbitt). For no particular reason, he’s disguised as a waiter.
This is where the confusion begins to take hold. Rudnicki cuts away from the party to the aforementioned Tai Chi gang demonstration, then to footage of the mayor finding a “For Hire” business card in his limo, then to the police commissioner’s office, where the commish tells the mayor he’s pulling all police presence out of Chinatown. Then back to the birthday party, where the mayor’s 10 year-old son is chatting up Makay about helping his dad. While no American martial-arts film is complete without some sort of studio ballad (usually paired with a training montage), For Hire flips the script by having Corrine dedicate a tone-deaf song to her dad during her birthday party with her other adopted sister, Rachel (Swayze) accompanying on piano. Thankfully, Rudnicki breaks up the monotony by cutting away to a hooker smoking crack and then approaching some police officers. Then back to the awkward ballad. It’s hard to tell whether this mess was the result of the filmmakers making an honest attempt at non-linear storytelling, or the DVD authors putting the scenes in the wrong order. I was so confused. It’s a stunning example of why you shouldn’t smoke weed while making, editing, or watching DTV martial-arts films.
The leader of the gang, the gang violence, and probably the shitty editing is Sonny, played by Kamar De Los Reyes. In the credits he’s billed on a first-name basis only, maybe so he could put this mess behind him in a play for legitimacy. (It almost worked, but it’s tough to hide behind similar credits for East L.A. Warriors, Ghetto Blaster, and the Jeff Speakman film, Street Knight.) His primary rival on the streets of Chinatown is Zeke Wild (Ramsey), another gang affiliate. The trash talk between them eventually turns physical, and by that I mean violent, not sexual. I’m as straight as they come, but the latter probably would have been more interesting. I’ve seen better fight scenes in Karate Champ.
Between a decaying Chinatown, an unhelpful police force, and an impending re-election, the mayor is in a tough spot. After his marketing strategy of leaving “For Hire” business cards everywhere the mayor looks, Makay sneaks past security and arrives at the mayor’s mansion to make his pitch. For an affordable fee of $1 million, he offers a three-pronged plan of attack. For most ninjas, this would include smoke bombs, shurikens, and a trusty katana blade. In Makay’s own words, this means he’s going to “go in,” “spread some havoc,” and “work the snake out of the woodwork.”
Makay’s special brand of havoc includes stealing Zeke Wild’s car, indiscriminately karate chopping people, blowing cocaine away from people trying to snort lines off the sidewalk, and getting beat up by girls. The aggression has the Chinatown gang on edge and it’s only a matter of time before the “snake” is revealed as Sonny. We come to find that he and Makay trained under the same master in their youth, sparring in Zubaz pants, chasing the same girls, and playing basketball. I say this not to spoil the “Big Reveal” but to reiterate that the fight skills of Sonny and Makay are equally boring to watch; their master was clearly a hack.
The climax is a blend of funeral, shoot-out, foot chase, cross-dressing, and an art auction showdown. Psh … typical. This is probably the best stretch of the film but that isn’t saying much: the fight choreography is uninspired overall and it looks like everything was done on the first take. I'll single out the mayor’s head of security, Saint Elmo (Hurd), for praise though; his hilarious expressions and atrocious line delivery are some of the film's highlights. Heavener is also good in his unique way: amazingly fluffy mullet, great outfits, and an attempt at a smooth and laid-back demeanor that screams “substitute gym teacher” more than “action hero star.”
Even with all these points working against the film, the worst offender is still the script itself, which includes some of the most poorly hatched dialog in human history. You know how the songs of Wesley Willis are entertaining and hilarious because they’re mostly just obscenity-laced streams of absurdist consciousness? For Hire is a lot like that. At worst, it’s a hurricane of verbal diarrhea that destroys everything in its path; at best, it’s a bunch of random cliches strung together with no regard for comprehension. Lines like "names don't mean much. What you do is what you are, and what you need is action." Uh ... the fuck? Or how about this winner: "I can do this. I won't say don't worry, but I will say that I won't come back without Will. And I will be back." Brilliant.
However, nothing in the film comes close to touching the film’s rousing eulogy scene, which I’ve transcribed here in its entirety if for no other reason than I’ve run out of terrible things to say about this film. Would you let your pastor spout this guilt-ridden, contradictory, nonsensical shit at a funeral?
"I did not know [her]. How many of you think you did? How many of you think you had nothing to do with sending her to her end? She had no family. What family she did have are all present and accounted for right here. People who loved her, cared for her, gave her shelter and work. Gave her a reason for living. Did anyone really know her? How could anyone know her better than that person who gave her a reason to die? In the midst of life, it is said we are in death, and unless we see in our loved ones the skull beneath the skin, the soul beneath the sheath. The very moment of their deaths, we know nothing about them. We can only be strangers to them in this life. Accept your guilt then. Your complicity in [her] death, the knowledge that your love, your care, led her to this pass or pass on indeed in the full knowledge that not only did you not know [her], that you will never know anyone again in this life."
For our Canadian neighbors to the north, For Hire was released as Lethal Ninja. I think most would agree that the superior title would have been Lethal Ninja For Hire, even though Heavener isn’t much of a ninja. Then again, this isn’t much of a movie. But if you’re itching for a Z-grade film featuring horrible dialog, David Heavener, Patrick Swayze’s adopted Korean sister, and a bunch of people who never made another movie, For Hire is a soothing cream with anti-itch properties.
Netflix, Amazon, EBay.