4.04.2011

Blackbelt (1992)

PLOT: A rising pop singer harassed by an obsessed stalker hires an ex-cop and martial-arts expert as personal security. As with most pop female vocalists, she’s kinda hot so her terrible music is tolerated by all involved.

Director: Charles Phillip Moore, Rick Jacobson
Writers: Paul Maslak, Don Wilson
Cast: Don “The Dragon” Wilson, Matthias Hues, Alan Blumenfeld, Deirdre Imershein, Richard Beymer, Jack Forcinito, Timothy D. Baker, Bob McFarland



PLOT THICKENER:
When I was about 13 or 14 years of age, the Spice Girls were just beginning to break through in the U.S. They were annoying. Their music was awful. But for whatever reason, I had a thing for Ginger Spice, she of the reddish hair and reasonably big cans. Like all teenage infatuations, it faded and I moved on. However, there are those out there incapable of getting over these kinds of fixations. Pop starlets from Tiffany to Britney Spears have had brushes with stalkers, and this seedy byproduct of celebrity status was popularized as a cinematic plot device with 1992’s Kevin Costner thriller, The Bodyguard. It turned a good profit at the box office and gave us Whitney Houston’s smash hit ballad “I Will Always Love You.” Earlier that same year, the Don “The Dragon” Wilson vehicle Blackbelt was released to the U.S. video market and gave us a new film to gather around with large groups of friends and larger amounts of whiskey.

Jack Dillon (Wilson) is a no-nonsense guy who has dedicated his life to cleaning up the streets of his American city which shall remain nameless. As a cop, he fought societal filth with a badge and a gun. These days, he fights scum with nothing more than his fists and his boots. In a dark urban alley, an aggressive pimp with an aggressive mullet is using his pimp hand on a reluctant hooker when Dillon discovers them. After smashing the pimp’s face and laying waste to his undercarriage, Dillon coolly remarks that “the broken nose is for the girl, the vasectomy’s free” before returning the tearful girl to her mother. Not only is Jack Dillon a retired cop and martial-arts expert and teacher, but he also gives out free vasectomies! You should look him up if you’re done having kids, though your insurance might not cover him.


Rising pop star Shanna (Imershein) is accustomed to a chaotic lifestyle as a foxy touring live act with a rabid fanbase. But following her latest performance, she and her assistant make a grisly discovery in a box of long-stem roses left in her dressing room. No! It’s not the tacky inclusion of Baby’s-breath. It’s a severed female finger. Her manager and boyfriend Bobby (Forcinito) is basically nutless, and her mob-connected label owner Eddie D’Angelo (Twin Peaks’ Richard Beymer) kinda hates her, so Shanna goes outside her circle of handlers for help.

When a bratty pop star shows up to his martial-arts class looking to hire a bodyguard, Dillon is resistant; he doesn’t do that kind of work. As it turns out, Shanna could care less, because she doesn’t like cops anyways. Unwarranted speeding tickets? No. Her dad was a cop. So? He raped her. Ohhhhhhh..... awkward. In any case, she was only following up on a recommendation from Dillon’s old partner, Detective Will Sturges (Blumenfeld). Rather coincidentally, Sturges calls Dillon to consult on a crime scene at that exact moment.


Awaiting Dillon at a nearby hotel is a complete massacre. Five men, all armed, have been left dead in a hotel room with trauma to various vital organs. Due to the nature of their injuries, Dillon rightly suspects a martial-arts expert. As a counterpoint to this mostly bloodless execution, there’s a body left in another room which looks like a victim straight out of 1980s slasher film. Enough blood was spilled for the killer to spell out “SHANNA WE’RE GOING TO THE CHAPEL” on the wall. Not enough blood was spilled for grammatically correct punctuation, apparently.

Shit just got real, so Dillon decides to take Shanna on as a client. As he chases clues, he eventually discovers what the audience knew a half-hour ago: the killer is a former Special Forces member named John Sweet, played by Matthias Hues. Like any good serial killer, he has a raging Oedipal complex and a poorly lit secret hideout. I couldn’t help but notice that Sweet also bears a passing resemblance to the Stingray character from Undefeatable. Beyond their deep-seated mommy issues, they both collect trophies from victims (Sweet prefers fingers to Stingray’s eyes) and have amazing manes of hair.


What he lacks in fantastic hair, character actor Richard Beymer more than makes up for in acting chops. There are two things he does extremely well as an onscreen performer: act sleazy and eat food. Whether it’s the pasta and salad of Blackbelt or the brie-and-butter baguette sandwiches from Twin Peaks, Beymer has an effective way of eating that makes me want to join in. On that note, it’s time for pancakes.

As Jake Dillon, Don Wilson keeps it simple. He kicks ass and delivers some occasionally well-written lines with true aplomb, with the aforementioned vasectomy one-liner as the highlight. I can’t say that Wilson and Imershein have much chemistry together, but some of that has to do with the dick-punching turn-off that is her character’s awful music. Even by early 1990s standards, the attempts at pop songs are quite heinous and could take a lot of viewers out of the film completely. To his credit, Dillon treats Shanna’s music the same way he treats her celebrity status -- with complete indifference. Which is, of course, in sharp contrast to the way he (eventually) treats her lady parts -- with fumbling teenaged zeal. We’ve covered only two Don “The Dragon” Wilson movies so far, but in those films he’s batting 1.000 in getting his onscreen love interests to disrobe for sex scenes. Good show, Mr. Wilson!


The film’s opening credits and marketing materials boasted what was apparently a fighting cast full of decorated championship talent (one of whom you may remember as the hilarious dad from No Retreat, No Surrender). Unfortunately, none of these fighters is provided with a unique character to make their screen time particularly noteworthy. Compounding the issue is that the action set pieces from fight choreographer Paul Maslak are utilized to do nothing but make the film’s hero and main villain look strong ahead of their climactic showdown. It seems the primary role of anyone else involved in the fight scenes was to look as good as possible while getting their ass kicked. The generous helpings of blood and sweat during the final fight are a nice topper to a solid film, but if you’re going to offer up the numerous accolades of your fighters as a selling point, it would help to give them a little bit of room to shine.

VERDICT:
While I’m certainly no expert on the cinematic exploits of Don Wilson, I do feel that Blackbelt is as good an entry point as any into his filmography. This was the film that really cemented my fondness for the “kung fu killer” as a compelling narrative device, if only for the bizarre ways in which the main villain is characterized and portrayed onscreen. Due in large part to great selling from the stunt performers, Hues comes across as a real monster in his short but dominant fight scenes. However, it’s his character’s sleazy back-story which puts the film into favorable territory for me. In order to strike a sharp contrast with Dillon’s wholesomeness, writer Charles Philip Moore deserves a bit of credit for going into some dark and weird places in creating the John Sweet character. This and the Richard Beymer performance were the highlights for me in what I found to be a fairly serviceable DTV action movie.

AVAILABILITY:
Netflix and Amazon.

5 / 7

4 comments:

  1. Excellent review!

    This was the 1st Don "The Dragon" movie i ever watched. It was a lot of fun. Just picked up a copy of Blackbelt a few weeks ago, it will be great to see Hues in this. Didn't know who he was at the time.

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  2. This was my 2nd Don "The Dragon" movie I ever watched (Bloodfist III: Forced to Fight was my first and fave D"TD"W joint). Dug the film, but I had the same disappointment you had regarding the large cast of martial arts pros; I remember even the music score got more kick ass while the opening credits filled with the screen with all of these names. The music was practically telling you "Get ready to watch these awesome mofos throw down!", but in the end, they might as well have just used anonymous stuntmen for those parts.

    That vasectomy line worked better in the WTF/deja vu-giving Angel of Destruction.

    Also, for any call girls who might be reading this: Getting tied up by your john is not worth ANY amount of money. Yeah, I know, that college loan is a bitch but seriously, a lady of the night should have better street smarts than that.

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  3. I had this as one of Dragon's better efforts as well, even though there was the great martial arts talent bait-and-switch. Also agree on Ginger Spice, especially that Union Jack dress she used to wear. Have you seen that documentary about two people who are obsessed with Tiffany? I have it in my instant queue, but haven't gotten around to it yet.

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  4. Ty - It was a bit uneven, but I had fun with it too. I'm not sure Hues will ever top his General Yuri character from NRNS2; his fighting has never looked better and he was a great dickwad villain, accent inaccuracies aside. But I think John Sweet very likely settles in as one of his top three performances. The character is just too weird to be ignored.

    EFC - Agreed. They undercut their own selling point: what's the point of even mentioning these guys if you're to make them look so ineffective? Baker gets to chew on a photocopy for a hot second but beyond that, all of them are forgettable. And AoD is THE Maria Ford film, IMO. I watched it over the weekend and am hoping to get that up next.

    DtVC - Good call on the documentary! I haven't seen it but the trailer makes it seem pretty sad and a little a bit bonkers. It would fit in nicely in a singer-stalker triple feature: kick things off with Blackbelt, then class things up with I Think We're Alone Now before bringing it all to a rolling boil with Angel of Destruction.

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