Director: Patrick Allen
Writers: Larry Felix Jr., Judd Lynn, Peter Shaner
Cast: William Zabka, Michael Bernardo, Bolo Yeung, Martin Kove, Maryam D’Abo, Sigal Diamant, James Pax, Hakim Alston, John Barrett, Roger Yuan, Kenn Scott
The “tournament” as a major plot device in martial-arts films began in earnest with 1973’s Enter the Dragon, was polished by 1978’s Master of the Flying Guillotine, and popularized by 1986’s Bloodsport. Countless imitators of the latter would follow in the late 1980s and early 1990s, few of which had distinguishing features to set them apart from the pack. The 1992 feature Shootfighter: Fight to the Death, the first and only directorial effort from Patrick Allen, is the result of three screenwriters with three distinct ideas about the film’s premise. The first writer’s concept: “It’s like Bloodsport, but with weapons.” The second said, “It’s like Bloodsport, but with a lot of gratuitous gore.” The third said, “It’s like Bloodsport, but not as good.”
Just as France is known for wine and cheese, Hong Kong is apparently known for underground full-contact fighting tournaments and that’s where our story begins. Shingo, played by the eminently badass Bolo Yeung, has just capped off his latest victory. He and his buddy, Po (Yuan) are stoked because they’re on the verge of meeting in the finals for a respectful contest between two masters.
Before that can happen, Po needs to defeat Lee, played by Martin Kove. I’m sure he’s a nice guy in real life but onscreen, where it counts, Kove is a mean motherfucker. After a sweaty slo-mo beatdown, he rips out Po’s throat. This goes over like a fart in church and everyone stands around bewildered at Lee’s lethal faux pas. He’s all “what gives? Only a fight to the death can determine a true champion!” and the referee (character actor George Cheung) does him like a moderator does a troll and bans him for life.
Years later, Shingo has left the memories of shootfighting behind in Hong Kong to train a student named Ruben (Zabka) for sanctioned fighting competitions in the United States. It was a little strange to see Chong Li and Johnny Lawrence, two of the most prolific martial-arts film villains of the 1980s, leaving their dickish typecasts behind to join forces as good guys. Shingo brings the stoic wisdom and Ruben is a sympathetic and mostly likeable character. He has a loyal girlfriend Cheryl (D’Abo), his own martial-arts school for children, and a teeming pile of debt. After all, children aren’t made of money, they’re made of boogers and ear infections. Those don’t pay the bills, at least not until the dollar collapses.
After finishing up at class one day, the brother of Ruben’s girlfriend, Nick (Bernardo), makes a surprise appearance after what Cheryl claims was a long absence. This is given no real explanation and for all we know he could be coming back from a sex change operation, but we know for sure that he’s a restless spirit because he rides a motorcycle and has a ponytail. While not as domesticated as Ruben, Nick shares the same love for martial arts and their bromance resumes without having missed a beat.
Nick is not only the brother of the girl Ruben is porking, he’s also Ruben’s best friend and confidante. Ruben reveals to Nick that the school isn’t doing well and a group of rednecks keep trying to shake him down for debts owed. While he’s not desperate enough to offer massage services on Craigslist, he’s in a serious financial hole. Since the organized competitions in which Nick and Ruben compete only offer medals and rankings as prizes, it will take a golden opportunity for them to turn their kickpunching trade into a more lucrative venture.
Awaiting our heroes just a short ride south is the solution to all of Ruben’s problems: Tijuana! No, they’re not drug muling or trafficking prostitutes (though there’s good money in both). They’re fighting. Lee has left the disgrace of his shootfighting ban behind him in Hong Kong to start a full-contact fighting circuit to compete directly with Tijuana’s full-contact strip clubs and full-contact donkey shows. After sending one of his scouts to a karate competition to entice Nick and Ruben with a promotional VHS tape (à la Total Gym Pro) they agree to participate.
While the underworld of caged fighters, screaming crowds, and dirty money is exciting at first, the glossy veneer is scrubbed away as the rules are changed and the stakes are raised. The resulting turmoil will challenge their friendship, their skills, and their ability to sweat profusely before even fighting. Lee hasn’t brought Ruben and Nick aboard just to fill out a fighting roster, he’s specifically chosen them to lure Shingo back into the ring so he can take his vengeance.
While Shingo is integral to the plot and is undoubtedly the central character tying the Lee and Ruben arcs together, Bolo Yeung's involvement is classic bait-and-switch and he's by no means the star. Despite being the best actor, even Zabka lacks the necessary screen-time to claim that title. Instead, the overstuffed action cast and unfocused screenplay pretty much require that Shootfighter functions as an ensemble work -- sort of like a b-grade, early 90s American martial-arts version of The Expendables.
The cast of familiar faces is substantial. Kenn Scott (Showdown) makes an all-too-brief cameo as a reluctant fighter, Hakim Alston (Bloodmoon) is featured prominently as the reigning Tijuana shootfighting champ, and John Barrett (American Kickboxer 1) plays a downtrodden and desperate fighter named Mongoose. Perhaps best of all, Lightning from Big Trouble in Little China (James Pax) shows up as Lee’s chainsmoking errand boy, Teng. Unfortunately, the filmmakers fail to maximize the returns on this great collection of talent.
Gory death blows aside -- and there are several good ones -- the action in the film is nothing spectacular. Part of it is due to the timid choreography from Pat E. Johnson (the Karate Kid and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series, respectively) and Brandon Pender (sword fight choreography on The Ice Pirates … not kidding). Their attempts to incorporate weapons and contrast styles feel arbitrary and look fairly clumsy. As an example, the guy who supposedly does “snake” style simply gyrates a lot and licks a boa constrictor before his match starts. Instead of a genuine snake fist practitioner, he comes across as a creepier, bestial version of Jake Roberts. Goofy caricatures aren’t the biggest issue here, though.
The main culprit is the way Allen shoots the action. Setting the majority of the fights in a cage presents some unique challenges, which Allen literally rams straight through more often than not. So while shots taken from inside or above the cage are clear, others are interrupted by a blurry chain-linked fence in the foreground. Even more distracting: Allen and his editor are incapable of getting through a fight without a minimum of six cutaways to the screaming crowd. This really hindered the flow of action and just about every fight felt heavily padded as a result.
On the good side, Shootfighter does have a few choice moments of cutting loose. One scene finds Bolo Yeung practicing Tai Chi while inexplicably surrounded by a gaggle of geese. Zabka freaks out on a mugger who ruins his burrito meal after pulling a knife. Not to be outdone, Bolo and Bernardo play a quick game of H-O-R-S-E with an eight year-old kid and get thoroughly schooled. And in a breathtaking fit of rage, Martin Kove chops the top off a pineapple with a samurai sword.
Due to equal parts Billy Zabka nostalgia and Bolo Yeung fandom, Shootfighter has gone through a bit of a renaissance in enthusiasm over the past few years. While it’s not a terrible film, the final product doesn’t fit the hype and this is unfortunately not the definitive Bolo Yeung film. I usually grimace when I see more than one screenwriter listed and my worst fears were realized: just about everyone is underdeveloped and the dialogue is more “atrocious and I don’t want to hear it again” than “atrocious and a lot of fun to mimic repeatedly among friends.” The fights themselves are passable but gimmicky and could have looked better with a steadier hand directing it all. Still, if you like your tournament fighters with grimy gobs of gore, Shootfighter fits the bill.
Your best bet is a used VHS on Amazon or EBay. Or *cough cough* YouTube *cough cough*.
4 / 7