Directors: Marshall M. Borden, Efren C. Piñon
Writer: Leo Fong
Cast: Leo Fong, Darnell Garcia, John Hammond, Cameron Mitchell, Ann Farber, Booker T. Anderson
While this is our second film from the Philippines in the last three weeks, and third overall, Enforcer from Death Row is our first film from the 1970s as well as the first starring Leo Fong. Yes, it all adds up to a lot of random digits. Some people find numbers to be fun (dorks, geniuses), but for the rest of us, we have this 1978 Filipino action trash romp to rely on for our chuckles.
The 1970s were a trying time for peace. While the Vietnam War drew to a close, the Cold War was at what Julia Child might call a rolling boil. The Arab-Israeli conflict kicked off in 1973 with the Yom Kippur War, and the Lebanese War started in 1975. Coups, terrorist operations, and dictators dominated the headlines and strife was at levels unseen since that time they outlawed a nifty little cough suppressant called Heroin.
Just as war produces heroes, so does peace. T.L. Young (Fong) is an innocent man on death row in a San Francisco prison. Fortunately, for the World Organization for Peace, he’s a rare candidate with experience and physical tools they desperately need. All of their intelligence operatives based in Manila have been killed off by a terrorist group called NOMAD, which now threatens to wipe out the population of the Philippines using a biological weapon unless they receive $45 million in cash. Since the organization would rather take their chances on a disposable convict than pay the money, Young is tapped as an “outside man” for his unique set of skills: martial-arts mastery, firearms expertise, and a choice moustache. Like every good action hero, he comes correct with his own titular theme song: “Outside Man,” the funkiest orchestral-soul track this side of Shaft.
After Young’s execution is staged for the prison warden and members of the press, his body is taken to a nearby hospital and revived. After regaining consciousness, he’s greeted by a member of the peacenik organization and told in the vaguest terms possible that a special assignment awaits him at headquarters in Arizona. His response? “How much money, and who do I kill?” Points for being direct and concise.
In exchange for a cool $100,000, Young will assume the new identity of Albert Lim and begin working undercover to take down NOMAD. Upon arriving in Manila, he has to touch base with a series of different contacts. Given no instructions other than to “have fun and stay sober,” Young, errr.... Lim, jets off to the land of chicken adobo and Manny Pacquiao.
Evil doesn’t stop and throw its legs up on the ottoman while Young is getting acclimated to his new surroundings, though. The thugs at NOMAD are sewing seeds of instability at every turn: cooking up epidemic bacteria and viruses, stealing documents, killing informers, and lubing deals for massive arms caches.
I couldn’t tell you who played Spencer, the leader of the terrorist group, and no, that’s not because I’m unable to tell the difference between Filipino people. Assholes -- why would you suggest that? It’s because neither the credits nor the IMDb entry list the cast and characters. For that reason, I’ll be referring to the Darnell Garcia character as Rego, because that’s sort of what it sounded like when other characters addressed him. As the head hatchet man, he trains the syndicate’s squad of ninja assassins when he’s not having threesomes with busty women or torturing people using snakes, rats, or power tools. Or was it torturing busty women and have threesomes with snakes, rats, and power tools? Either way, it’s pretty sleazy behavior, but not as bizarre as the group‘s other muscle, a 300-pound black man named Monster. What he lacks in fashion sense -- he wears a filthy half-shirt which exposes his beer belly -- he makes up in his propensity for doing bumps of coke after completing tasks.
You could nitpick about a lot of things in this type of movie, but for my money, the misappropriation of the ninja archetype was the most egregious. In Enforcer... the only characteristics which NOMAD’s ninjas share with their brethren are masks and throwing stars. Sure, they drop randomly from ceiling panels every so often, but they also run into traffic in the middle of the day and toss Molotov cocktails from moving trucks. Resourceful, sure, but there’s nothing particularly stealthy about that.
The fight scenes have an unrefined but energetic and rompy style to them, highlighted by a brawl between Young, Rego, and a group of ninjas in a burning chemical laboratory. During Young’s early training, we also see a free-flow stickfighting drill with eskrima Grandmaster Angel Cabales. While there’s no shortage of action, some of the bigger action set pieces are terribly slow to develop. During a dramatic chase scene which finds our hero driving perilously toward a cliff, Young escapes his convertible by latching onto a rope ladder lowered by a moving helicopter. This would have looked pretty bad-ass had the car not been traveling 8 miles per hour. There’s also some really poor night shots that failed mightily to incorporate action as well as a glaring continuity error where a moustache appears suddenly on Leo Fong’s previously clean-shaven face when he looks up to react to an explosion. These aren’t terrible gaffes, and I might even regard them as charming, but they did take away from the action scenes a bit.
For the uninitiated, Fong was born in China, moved to Arkansas at the age of five, and learned boxing as a teenager and martial arts in his 20s. He sparred with Bruce Lee and wrote or directed over 20 films. Best of all, he has a fairly pronounced Southern drawl, which some have mistaken -- at least in this film -- as a bad dubbing job. While an Asian guy with a Southern accent should equal cinematic gold, Fong’s rich mahogany dramatic style and age may have held him back. He was around 50 when this was filmed and only grew older through the American action boom of the 1980s. Still, Fong carved out a good niche for himself and worked with everyone from action stars like Richard Norton, Billy Blanks, and Reb Brown, to dramatic actors such as Stack Pierce, George Cheung, and Cameron Mitchell.
Splitting the duties at director are Marshall M. Borden, who would never again helm another film, and Efren C. Piñon, perhaps most famous for the 1983 horror-fantasy The Killing of Satan. Perhaps the more notable production credit is Frank Harris, listed as cinematographer. He’d go on to direct Fong in Killpoint (1984) and Low Blow (1986), both of which will be covered in the coming months.
There are no great surprises here. You get exactly what’s coming to you: Leo Fong in a low-budget late 1970s Filipino action movie. There’s bad dubbing, random gore, random nudity, rape, the stunts are often slow to develop, the plot is convoluted, the villains are sleazy, and most of the production is sloppy as all fuck, but somehow it’s still an entertaining ride when you’ve come out the other side. In other words, Enforcer from Death Row is like 80% of 1970s Filipino action movies. If you like that type of thing, have at it. If you don’t, go watch The King’s Speech. I heard a lot of people over the age of 60 really liked it.
Netflix and Amazon.
4 / 7