5.05.2011

Tiger Claws (1992)

PLOT: A trail of murder victims with distinct scratch marks left on their faces has New York City on edge. Two cops reluctantly team up to search for the elusive killer, who is probably a girl with a great manicure. Their reasoning? Only chicks and velociraptors would scratch during a fight and one of those suspects is innocent by reason of extinction.

Director: Kelly Makin
Writer: J. Stephen Maunder
Cast: Jalal Merhi, Cynthia Rothrock, Bolo Yeung, Nick Dibley, Bill Pickells, Robert Nolan, Kedar Brown, Michael Bernardo

PLOT THICKENER:
Training one’s body to be a killing machine can be a tiresome process, both physically and mentally. One of the better cinematic depictions of this concept is in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, where the fragile Leonard Lawrence goes off the rails after verbal abuse and hazing during military training. Not to be outdone by some lame-o 1970s Vietnam war classic, Canadian filmmaker Kelly Makin -- perhaps best known for the Kids in the Hall feature-length film -- brought the martial arts thriller Tiger Claws into the fold in 1992. This story about the consequences of extreme training and the failure to keep one’s nails clipped raises many important questions, specifically: why did Cynthia Rothrock do this movie?

The thankless hours of spending her shifts dressed like a hooker to catch johns isn’t cutting it for Linda Masterson (Rothrock). She wants serious police work. Fortune smiles upon her as a series of victims pile up with no visible trauma aside from peculiar claw marks left on their faces. Since the stiffs were all martial-artists and they died from internal injuries, Masterson suspects a highly-trained fighter. Despite the solid hunch, her department chief wants to pair her with someone to work on the case, dubbed internally as the “Death Dealer” murders.


While he’s hostile to working with a partner, vice cop Tarek Richards (Merhi) doesn’t have a choice. Right after demanding a $25,000 increase in his undercover budget, he botches a sting operation and get suspended. This, combined with his ponytail, houseboat, and his wife leaving him, apparently makes him some sort of loose cannon. (Most would conclude he’s just a fuck-up). After looking at Masterson’s evidence, Richards believes the killer is using a rare version of Tiger style kung-fu.

Following some field research -- i.e. walking through Chinatown and going to a karate tournament -- Richards thinks he has a lead, but he’ll have to go undercover in order to chase it. This basically means that Cynthia Rothrock sits in a van doing surveillance while Jalal Merhi gets to have all the fun training in Tiger style. He’s done this once before, but this variation is so intense it can drive a man mad and it’s the real reason why his wife left him... not his ponytail. During his tenure, he befriends some trainees and meets a harmless interior painter named Chong, played by Bolo Yeung. Hmm, that’s weird. Why does the harmless 260-pound interior painter have a giant shrine with all these stolen martial arts weapons?


I’m not sure to what degree they should be held accountable for the way the fight scenes are shot, but as tandem fight choreographers, Steve Lucescu and Jalal Merhi do little to sway me with how they’re staged. The climactic fight involving the male principals lacks drama and is made watchable only by Bolo’s facial expressions and the fact that they crush more cardboard boxes than a trash compactor. Much of the combat is slow to develop and hurt by a lot of over-the-shoulder, first-person perspective shots. Since this was Makin’s first and only foray into the action genre, one could make the case that his team was favoring “feel” over “look” with this style of shooting, but they fail to achieve either effect.

There is some gold swimming in the garbage though. All of Chong’s kill scenes have decent build and execution, and the victims do a good job of selling Yeung’s strikes. Cynthia Rothrock creatively uses rope and a kayak paddle as weapons, and she has two fights with Yeung toward the back-end of the film which are paced a few beats quicker and incorporate their differences in size and speed. Most of the “Tiger” training portions are visually interesting and well-shot, and Bolo is made to look positively bad-ass in scenes where he displays his bastardized version of the training. One sequence has him dunking his hands in scalding water before splashing it on his face and drinking it, while another finds him making kung-fruit salad by squeezing apples to a pulpy mess.


In the area of performances, there’s not much to love. As Masterson, Rothrock is decent but her role is diminished, and Bolo is menacing as Chong but the character is underdeveloped. The best part of the movie is any scene involving real-life Canadian master Bill Pickells. I briefly participated in Tang Soo Do as a youngster in the early 1990s, and was thus exposed to a handful of martial-arts demos where middle-aged white guys with mullets and wonky facial hair would scream while breaking boards or waving swords. The insanely goofy Bill Pickells Karate Show featured in Tiger Claws brought all of those memories back. Even better is that Pickells plays an egotistical prick who berates his production staff and complains that the set’s potted plants make him look short. We’ve covered several films with the martial-artist-as-serial-killer plot device and each of the antagonists were memorable for different reasons. As a counterpoint to that, Pickells earns the distinction of being the most memorable victim -- he’s hilarious in short minutes.


Despite attempts to paint his character as such, Merhi isn't adept at playing the dark, rough, and brooding type. I appreciate that screenwriter J. Stephen Maunder positioned the Tiger training as emotionally taxing and physically extreme; the case of a practitioner snapping and killing as a result of the grueling training is believable. The dialogue which describes the training process is another story, though. The total lack of emotive qualities in Merhi’s line delivery really makes him an unideal fit to play a “man on the edge.” A better actor like John Barrett or Jeff Wincott could probably pull this off more convincingly, but whether he’s striking down “NO SWIMMING” signs at the beach, or wearing his hair down and looking like a haggard version of Balki Bartokomous, Merhi isn’t that actor. Yes, I’m critiquing the dramatic qualities of a Jalal Merhi performance. Also, fire is hot.

This was the first film released under Merhi’s Film One Productions banner, and it’s one of their better efforts. We often poke fun at Merhi around these parts but it’s all in good fun. He built a 15-year career on Torontoyork City martial arts movies teeming with bigger-name talent like Rothrock, Billy Blanks, and Loren Avedon, and for that longevity, he should be commended. That he seems to consistently elevate his own parts over those of his costars has always seemed curious to me, though. Maybe he’s just a really persuasive guy.


VERDICT:
I first caught this film as part of TNT’s action-oriented “Nitro” programming over a decade ago and at the time, I regarded it as nothing more than a barely-average fight film. The recent rewatch has done little to change my opinion but I did find some likable elements that 14 year-old Karl might've overlooked. The film is nicely paced and rarely drags. Bolo is convincing as the story’s monster and while not at the level of Chong Li in Bloodsport, he’s used more effectively here than in bit parts for other American films. I found Rothrock was underutilized but she did have some decent fight scenes and gets to show off her burgeoning fashionista side. Despite the occasional bright spots, the film is crippled by some awful dialogue and acting, and poorly-composed fight scenes. That said, it launched two sequels and is one of the better Jalal Merhi action vehicles ... if you’re into that sort of thing. If you are, don’t tell anyone.

AVAILABILITY:
VHS copies can be purchased on Amazon or EBay.

4 / 7

5 comments:

  1. Excellent Review. Will to still check this out. Love Bolo. Also we have Tiger Claws II in our pile of movies to watch!

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  2. Your mentioning of studying Tang Soo Do reminds me of how I feel the early-to-mid 90's were a great time to be a young kid studying martial arts, because you had all of these kickpunchers at the video store and cable; I suppose this is how DTV stars like Rothrock, Wincott, "The Dragon" Wilson, et al, made such a lasting impression on us (yeah, I'm speaking for you too).

    I had taekwondo class on Thursdays and would get home just in time to catch whatever was premiering on HBO's Thursday Night Prime (kickpunchers or shoot-em-ups). Tiger Claws was one of those film and Bill Pickells was the only thing that made the film remotely memorable for me. No surprise that Makin went on to direct Brain Candy; that scene could've been just as easily played by Kevin McDonald or Mark McKinney in a KITH sketch.

    Anyway, my best guess re: Merhi getting bigger stars to take smaller roles over him is just a simple matter of convincing them with a nice paycheck and a shorter shooting schedule for their scenes. Or they're all just really good friends doing each other favors.

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  3. Loved the post Nitro action block-- and could really use it now with my Celtics getting beaten in OT on TNT! As far as this one goes, I'm pretty much in agreement. I think if Rothrock had been the main hero it might have worked better.

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  4. @Ty - Looking forward to your take on it. As a film in the kung-fu killer mold, it's slightly better than Blackbelt in the fight department but doesn't really have any memorable performances aside from Bolo (always good).

    @EFC - You were a lot more perceptive than I was during your martial arts days. I seem to remember I got into it because a) it was winter and I couldn't dribble a basketball at that point, and b) Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were the shit. And yes, Mr. Pickells owns. He would have made Foot Fist Way infinitely better. I'd buy the mutually beneficial favors angle on Merhi, but it doesn't seem that any of them are falling over themselves to put Jalal in their pictures. He almost exclusively does vanity vehicles.

    @DtVC - I'm a Bay Stater and this Miami series has been a vicious Tiger Uppercut to the dick. Merhi certainly can't carry a film but you can overshadow his deficiencies with a stronger actor. Imagine Roddy Piper playing off him? Comedy gold!

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  5. Piper and Merhi would've been fantastic! And at least the B's are in the Eastern Conference Finals. I'll take that.

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