Last Man Standing (1996)

PLOT: A network of criminals and crooked cops make life miserable for the arresting officer in a high-profile case... and by "make life miserable" I really mean "ruin all of his sports jackets during outstanding stunt sequences."

Director: Joseph Merhi
Writer: Joseph Merhi
Cast: Jeff Wincott, Jonathan Fuller, Jillian McWhirter, Steve Eastin, Robert LaSardo, Johnathan Banks, Michael Green, Ava Fabian

More than two weeks have passed since we last visited Jeff Wincott’s filmography and everyone from EFC and WSW to this guy I cut in line at the train station to buy a Metro card encouraged me to watch his 1996 film Last Man Standing. Never before has my inability to resist the power of suggestion aligned so perfectly with my inability to decide on the next movie in my queue to review. If you only watch one 1996 film called Last Man Standing, make sure it’s this one and not the uneven Yojimbo retread with Bruce Willis (suggested for Walter Hill completists).

The film opens with a bombastic bank robbery which serves to exhaust roughly 70% of the film’s budget and introduce some of the film’s villains. Lucretia, played by Playboy Playmate Ava Fabian, never met a parked car rigged with explosives to deter pursuing police cruisers that she didn’t like. While she doesn’t expose the goods in this film, she does smoke a movie-set doobie with Kazz (LaSardo), the gang’s tattooed muscle. The team is led by a violent psychopath named Snake Underwood, played by DTV veteran and Skyscraper survivor Jonathan Fuller. The heist goes swimmingly and Snake meets up with some additional cohorts at a hotel later on to divvy up the loot.

Despite the successful operation, Snake and company commit the cardinal sin of staying past the check-out time in the hotel’s fanciest suite, prompting the uppity hotel manager to call the police. Answering the call are Detectives Kurt Bellmore (Wincott) and Frank Kane (Banks). The latter is a burned-out cop on his last legs, with all the cynical trappings befitting a veteran of the force. His younger but experienced counterpart still believes in the integrity of the badge and has a revolving collection of colorful sports jackets that would make Craig Sager blush. After Bellmore and Kane rush the room of thugs, no less than a half-dozen windows and a hotel kitchen are destroyed during the chase to put Snake in handcuffs. The hotel manager would have been really pissed about the damages had he not already been shot to death.

After Snake suspiciously makes bail and key evidence goes missing from the bust, Bellmore’s perception of his department, its members, and the police force at large begins to unravel. Kane reveals that he’s been working on a book about the corruption he’s observed in his decades on the force, and that names will be named. Lawmen at the highest reaches of the city org chart are bristling with defensiveness around the arrest and release of Snake Underwood, and it’s only a matter of time before the fact-finding Bellmore is marked for elimination.

Two Wincott movies, each with a protagonist fighting a system of law that is at best, dysfunctional, and at worst, completely corrupt. The plot itself is nothing new, but the overall tone of each film could not be more different. When Mission of Justice was released in 1992, the cinematic world was still coming down from the high of an amazing run of 1980s action. To capture that mood the filmmakers injected the proceedings with liberal doses of cheese and camp. Things change rapidly though, and Last Man Standing is content to shed the goofiness and instead wade in a desperate pool of whiskey, gun powder, and cigarette butts. In other words, it’s a much more serious (and unhealthy) place and time.

It’s apparent throughout the film that Bellmore has dual citizenship; while he was obviously born in the U.S., he spends the majority of the year in Flavor Country. Seriously, we haven’t seen chain smoking this entertaining since that fat Indonesian baby or Andrew Stevens in Blood Chase from our last review. Of all the batshit crazy things that happen in this movie, the chain smoking is actually the element which requires the greatest suspension of disbelief. As any regular smoker can attest, there’s little to no fucking chance you have the wind to spend your workdays chasing people on foot at the rate Bellmore does in this film. Especially in snake-skin cowboy boots.

It should surprise no one that Spiro Razatos is back at it again as stunt coordinator; his fingerprints are all over the over-the-top action choreography. Without question, the standout scene is a nearly ten-minute freeway chase between Snake and friends in a stolen armored truck full of cash and Bellmore on a commandeered motorcycle. To add insult to injury, or perhaps because you can’t place a value on eye safety, our hero commandeers the owner’s BluBlocker aviators too. The high speed pursuit sees multiple carsplosions and dingers before Bellmore launches himself into the back of the truck for a brief fist fight before falling out and getting dragged behind the vehicle for a few exits. The only body parts not shredded by the asphalt were apparently Bellmore’s lungs, because he’s puffing away with a towel draped around his shoulders in the very next scene.

Much like its cinematic brethren Rage, Last Man Standing is a PM Entertainment joint that hangs its hat on loud and dangerous stunt pieces while de-emphasizing the role of hand to hand combat. The dearth of martial arts action would piss you off were it not for the film’s great chase sequences, multiple carsplosions, and squibtastic shootouts. Still, I counted three or four Wincott fight scenes during the runtime, including one that managed to rouse a daytime strip club crowd from its unsanitary buffett-induced haze.

Last Man Standing is a great piece of stunt-driven action spectacle and I’ll allow myself an awkward hyperbolic Jackie Chan comparison by positing that if Mission of Justice was Jeff Wincott’s Drunken Master II, this film is his Police Story. Despite its budget, this is a grade-A effort on virtually all fronts and quite possibly one of the top three films upon which PM Entertainment has ever slapped its prestigious name.

Netflix, Amazon, EBay.

6.5 / 7


Blood Chase (1989)

PLOT: A wife drags her husband on a dangerous cross-continental journey to find the truth about her father’s death. Not quite the ideal getaway but it’s better than another trip to Disney World.

Director: Teddy Page
Writer: Jeff Griffith, Teddy Page
Cast: Karen Sheperd, Andrew Stevens, Jerry Beyer, Ian Senzon, Jim Moss, David Light, Mike Monty, Tony Chang

I can’t tell you much about the evolution of the Filipino film industry or why so many resources from the West -- both human and financial -- went into making exploitation b-films there. Go here or here for that and a whole lot more. What I do know is that a lot of American martial arts actors went into the sweltering heat of Southeast Asia during the 1980s and 1990s to make action movie magic. That trend continues as we follow Karen Sheperd to Manila, where she worked with Teddy Page to create the somewhat compelling but mostly confusing 1989 action-mystery Blood Chase.

When we first meet John Hayes (Stevens), he introduces himself as “Peter Boyle” to a group of toughs led by Nick Nicholson, who have stopped to unload a stash of drugs hidden in plush unicorns. They seem unconvinced. After Nicholson’s character fails to intimidate this unwanted presence, the aforementioned Boyle launches into action and punches and kicks the gang into submission. His covert status not only requires expertise in the fighting arts but apparently that he also masquerades as one of the great character actors of the 1970s. He’s not the only one leading a life of crimefighting; his wife, Cheryl Anderson (Sheperd) is a police officer too.

Despite her successful career and loving marriage, Cheryl has a dark secret. No, it’s not herpes. During her surprise birthday party, planned ever-so covertly by John, she receives flowers from a mystery sender. Did she get the herpes from cheating? No, and to reiterate, she doesn’t have herpes. The flowers are from a former “business associate” from her deceased father’s past. Doting dad Ross Anderson was one member in a group of thieves; their last job on an armored truck -- seen in the very beginning of the film -- went swimmingly up until the post-robbery meeting to divvy up the winnings. The crew’s ringleader, Eddie Nichols (Light), gets arrested during a set-up, along with his henchmen Diego (Beyer), Stillwell (Senzon), and Hopper (Moss). Missing from that equation is Ross, who allegedly made off with the loot but later died in a carsplosion.

With the help of a crooked cop, Nichols and his crew bust out of the clink and start stalking Cheryl and John in an effort to locate the stolen money. Random cars with tinted windows appear outside their home. A gang attacks them in a public park during a morning jog. Cheryl gets kidnapped and then escapes on several occasions. None of it will stop unless Cheryl and John explore her father’s past, his death, and what remains of his links to the treacherous gang.

The details of the plot aren’t so much mysterious as they are sloppy and confusing. The passage of time between the robbery and the present day is never explicitly stated until Cheryl’s expository monologue later in the film. While I’m not the biggest fan of the “X AMOUNT OF YEARS LATER” title card, it would have gone a long way to clear this up. It didn’t help that my DVD copy of the film skipped forward by about 10 seconds a dozen times over the course of 90 minutes, but that might have been a really fucking important 120 seconds of dialogue that I missed. All this said, it should surprise no one that this was Jeff Griffith’s only screenwriting credit. The various plot developments seem to get in the way of the story itself and from a narrative perspective, this gets a bit grating.

Fortunately, the action itself is quite good. While less prolific than his Filipino directorial brethren Eddie Romero or Cirio Santiago, Teddy Page is a solid action director and easily the best filmmaker with at least five films to his credit with the word “blood” in the title (Blood Debts, Blood Hands, Blood Chase, Blood Ring, and Blood Ring 2). Since his cast consists largely of martial arts actors, he emphasizes hand-to-hand fights but peppers the story with plenty of shoot-outs, splosions, and chase and pursuit sequences.

The dynamic among Nichols and his crew is mapped out with a reasonably well-defined pecking order. Nichols is the brainy taskmaster while everyone else acts as the qualified but bumbling muscle. (In reaction to a failed shakedown, Nichols scolds his boys in stating “You two couldn’t piss a hole in snow.”) Jim Moss is a face you’ll find familiar when watching these Filipino action efforts, and he’s quite good here. As Diego, Beyer is his usual awesome kick-happy self, though he opts for a tight and cropped ‘do in lieu of the flowing mane he sported in Fighting Spirit. The real surprise is Ian Senzon as Stilwell. While a bit stiff as an actor, he’s a fairly competent martial artist and he and Sheperd have one of the better fights in the film. Unfortunately, this is his only film role.

Despite chain-smoking like a character out of Good Night and Good Luck, Andrew Stevens is more than competent in his fight scenes as well. It’s really hard to gauge his proficiency in this aspect of his performance because he didn’t do a whole lot of action roles aside from this. He’s probably best-remembered for his early work in Brian De Palma’s The Fury and the Charles Bronson joints Death Hunt and 10 to Midnight. That said, his acting breathes life into a pretty flat character and helps to ground the film, and he and Sheperd play well off each other as a convincing husband and wife team.

To be blunt: my desire to love Blood Chase exceeded the actual level of enjoyment I got from watching it. In the annals of really fun Filipino action films starring American martial artists, Blood Chase is nothing more than a solid entry. It’s not on the level of a Live by the Fist or even the hot mess that is Fighting Spirit, but the action scenes were enough to keep me engaged. This is a great credit to Teddy Page, who keeps the affair reasonably well-paced despite the collars of a very clunky script, and Karen Sheperd, whose skills for executing choreographed violence can’t be overstated.

Extremely tough to track down. Your best bet for a DVD copy is either the gray market or an out of region seller.

4 / 7


Mission of Justice (1992)

PLOT: A down-on-his-luck cop named Kurt Harris infiltrates a secretive organization dedicated to peace, order, and the election of a six-foot tall Amazonian mayoral candidate. What he discovers will possibly be incriminating but definitely be on VHS tape.

Director: Steve Barnett
Writers: George Saunders, John Bryant Hedberg
Cast: Jeff Wincott, Karen Sheperd, Brigitte Nielsen, Matthias Hues, James Lew, Billy Williams, Tony Burton

It’s not often that I make personal disclosures in this space, but I’ll start off with one here: I went nearly three decades without watching a Jeff Wincott film. I’ll pause now for the collective gasp and screams of “FRAUD!”

He was never an actor I purposely avoided (*cough* Lorenzo Lamas) but since I was elbow-deep in Lundgren and Van Damme films during my prime direct-to-video years, Wincott never crept onto my cinematic radar. But much like other important milestones like sex, ice skating, and rigging live bait, the longer you go without watching a Jeff Wincott film, the harder it becomes to really start. So I pegged his 1992 film Mission of Justice as my jumping-off point.

Police officer Kurt Harris (Wincott) is a cop with a total respect for the rule of law to match his propensity for using whatever force is necessary to bring criminals down. When an abusive informant kills his girlfriend after being released by the department’s sergeant, Harris wigs out on his dickhead superior and earns a two-month suspension after punching him out. His partner, Lynne Steel (Sheperd) wants to see cooler heads prevail but Harris’s belief in the system is all but destroyed, remarking that as cops, they’re “supposed to stop the bad guys, not process them.”

To blow off some steam, Harris visits his old friend and boxing trainer and champion Cedric Williams (Burton) at his gym. A veteran of all six Rocky films, Tony Burton has carved out a nice career for himself by getting typecast, which is really not all that unusual considering he was an actual boxer. Harris and Cedric pump some iron and work out together, but the latter’s strange mood isn’t lost on Harris. Although he refuses to discuss the issue with his friend, Cedric is piping mad because a local mayoral candidate named Dr. Rachel Larkin (Nielsen) has been using his name and image to promote her campaign without his permission.

Dr. Larkin is not only a statuesque blond capable of ripping apart lobster tails with her bare hands, but also a philanthropist and public safety hardliner. Through her organization, the Mission of Justice, she’s recruited a task force of fighting experts dubbed the Peacemakers to supplement the municipal law enforcement in their crime-fighting. Why would Cedric ever consider aligning himself against such a virtuous cause? His terminated association with the Mission of Justice points the way.

After Harris leaves for the evening, Dr. Larkin and her head goons, Akiro (Lew) and Titus (Hues) pay Cedric an unexpected visit. At first, she tries simple persuasive language to bring Cedric back into the fold at the MoJ. When that doesn’t work, Cedric and her brother, Titus, have an impromptu fight in the ring which the latter wins handily through established Western boxing techniques like elbows, cheapshots, and breaking the opponent’s hands. After Cedric’s continued dogged resistance to Larkin, everyone decides to depart amicably without further conflict. That is to say, Larkin knifes him to death.

Harris is devastated when he discovers the news about his friend. After the chaos at the crime scene dissipates, he breaks into the gym and discovers little left other than a single flower buried in the sand of a slashed heavy bag. He’s not alone, however. Lynne figured he might come snooping around the crime scene, so she comforts her friend and partner by sharing the grisly details of Cedric’s death, driving Harris to sob and probably snot and drool all over himself.

Later at home, he makes a critical connection the way most of us render logical conclusions: while watching an old spaghetti Western on TV, drunk as shit. A Larkin campaign commercial airs and the decorative bud on her lapel suggests a reasonable facsimile of the flower he found at the gym. Instead of sharing his hunch with his fellow officers, he pursues it at the source by enlisting in the Mission of Justice the very next day.

After going through a brutal combative gauntlet to earn his stripes (a pinky ring and a free t-shirt), Harris joins a regular patrol of Peacemakers to keep the streets safe. His search for the truth about the organization continues through election day, where the conflict comes to a glass-shattering, knife-pulling, hand-breaking head.

If the quality of a film’s action were to be described in terms of 8-bit video games instead of superlatives, Mission of Justice would have been Rampage (pretty good) if not for two terrific set pieces that elevate it to Mega Man 3 (really good). The first, in which Wincott’s character is put through a gauntlet against dozens of Peacemakers to prove his worth, manages to be both well-choreographed and visually striking. Harris and the trainees are all equipped with fighting sticks and fight choreographer Jeff Pruitt gives the various techniques room to breathe without sacrificing any of the visceral impact. The mat in the corridor is a bright red, which contrasts nicely with the trail of black-clad fighters in various states of disrepair that Harris leaves in his wake. Even more impressive? According to an interview with Stack of Dimes, Wincott had no prior experience with fighting sticks or the many techniques endemic to eskrima and other weapon-based martial arts like it. He learned 45 minutes before the scene was shot. The other main course might not have the same visual sting as the gauntlet scene, but still manages to deliver the fun. I’ll avoid spoiling too much, but it includes action movie tropes like stunt-falls and wire-work, and creative choices in weaponry, like chainsaws and light tubes.

Director Steve Barnett pulls decent performances out of his actors and weaves the action and mystery elements into a tight, well-paced 84 minutes. When a film is bookended by characters getting smashed through windows, I have a hard time finding faults. I was a little disappointed to learn that screenwriter George Saunders was not the same George Saunders who writes awesome and hilarious short story collections, but it wouldn’t be fair to use that as a mark against the film. One oddity worth mentioning is that in addition to checking the financial records of its applicants, the Mission of Justice also used something called a “bio-feedback” machine on them. I like thinly-veiled jabs at Scientology as much as the next guy, but I thought the cultish elements in the screenplay could have been better explored.

If you’ve ever longed to see Matthias Hues dressed in a white turtleneck under a sportscoat, or wanted to see him scream “NOW I’M CHAMPION OF THE WORLD!” while wearing a massive championship belt under said sportscoat, this movie is the answer to your totally fucking random Matthias Hues fantasies. As he does so often, Hues brings a screen presence befitting of a main villain despite being cast as a supporting character. His blond locks and towering stature make him a natural choice to play the brother of Brigitte Nielsen’s character in this movie ... or any movie really.

I had no pre-conceived notions about what type of martial artist Jeff Wincott would be, so the biggest element of his skill-set that surprised me was his acting. This guy has legitimate chops. I’m not sure where Mission of Justice ranks in his filmography, but I was really impressed with the overall effort and the roster of talent. Highly recommended for Wincott virgins and loyalists alike.

VHS or Region 2 DVD.

6 / 7


Street Soldiers (1991)

PLOT: Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is written mostly in iambic pentameter and includes puns, sermons, and sonnets. The writing in Street Soldiers includes the lines “I know about spitting snakes!” and “WHERE’S MY BITCH?!”

Director: Lee Harry
Writers: Jun Chong, Spencer Grendahl, Lee Harry
Cast: Jun Chong, Hwang Jang Lee, Joon Kim, Jeffrey Rector, David Homb, Johnathan Gorman, Katherine Armstrong, Jude Gerard Prest

Just when you thought it was safe to stop combining a tired Shakespearean narrative with poor writing and unimaginative martial arts, along comes the 1991 film Street Soldiers. This is our first review of a film from Jun Chong, who penned the screenplay in addition to his acting duties. It’s also the second appearance on the site for Korean superkicker Hwang Jang Lee. We'll never know why he chose this movie as his real splash in the American market, but he shouldn’t feel too badly. Everyone is prone to taking bad career advice.

The unnamed American city in this story is but a canvas for the violent artistic expression of two competing gangs. The Tigers are a group of popular high school kids with good hair, steady jobs, girlfriends, and matching jackets. They play stickball and hang out at swap meets. While they don’t necessarily go looking for trouble, it seems to find them, most often in the form of the JPs. Unlike the Tigers, this crew consists of haggard misfits and cast-offs of various ages. Recently, a truce has held the tension between them to nothing more than a simmer. When the JPs’ de facto leader, Spider (Prest) stabs one of the Tigers to death during a skirmish, it doesn’t turn up the heat on the rivalry so much as it knocks the fucking pot off the stove.

When the group’s original leader, Priest (Rector), rejoins the fold after serving a prison sentence, he immediately reasserts his authority. Enraged by the broken truce, he dominates Spider during a knife-fight in front of the rest of the gang and forces him to beg for his life (“You’re gonna bleed like any other chicken!”). Jeffrey Rector is nothing short of a revelation in this role and he knows exactly what kind of movie this is. To call his performance hammy is inadequate; Rector decides to deliver all of his lines in a raspy whisper that falls somewhere between Demi Moore and an early Goldust promo.

Though his violent and unreasonable actions indicate otherwise, Priest is more than just a crazed convict. He has a thoughtful and sensitive side too. When a random prisoner named Tak (Lee) helped him during a jail fight and somehow lost his tongue, Priest invited him into the gang on their first day out of the joint and gave him the gift of a toy cobra that spits water. He also longs for his ex-girlfriend, Julie (Armstrong), the teenage love with whom he got a matching star tattoo on his hand. I mean, he doesn’t long for her so much that he’s unwilling to arrange and participate in the brutal gang rape of a hated rival’s girlfriend. But he does wear protection when going first … and last, according to the unfortunate victim.

The Tigers don’t appear to have a main leader, but the closest thing they have is Max, played by Johnathan Gorman. He was there to hold his dying friend in his arms when the truce was broken and understands more than anyone that the JPs must be shouted down in the only language they understand: violence. Max’s closest friend, Chuck (Kim) is slow to come around to this realization, but a brawl at a school dance expedites this change of heart. During the tussle, an associate of the Tigers named Troy (Homb) assists Chuck during the melee. Noting his unrefined but effective fighting skills, Chuck brings Troy to a martial arts dojo run by his uncle Han, played by Jun Chong.

As if the burning hatred between the gangs didn’t have quite enough kindling, Troy and Julie have the hots for each other. Priest flies off the handle and the violence escalates to cause additional deaths, drawing the attention of the police. Following the precedents set by equally violent gangs like the Bloods and Crips, Max refuses to involve the authorities. He instead wants to involve Master Han to teach the Tigers how to fight. Initially reluctant, Han eventually relents and the guys learn his special brand of asskicking, which consists mostly of montages where they break boards and get tossed to the floor.

Jun Chong has put together some decent fight scenes when paired with the right talent, as in previous efforts L.A. Streetfighters and Silent Assassins. On paper, there were no reasons why he and Hwang Jang Lee -- both taekwondo experts -- could not have had a terrific fight. As happens so often though, the direction and editing fail to live up to the skills of the performers. The shooting angles and choppy editing are bad enough, but Lee Harry also opts to interrupt the fight with shots of Troy looking around in the darkness of a warehouse and shots of Priest and Troy gazing at each other during a climactic stare-down.

The acting for the most part is quite poor, but Rector’s overacting and some competence from Joon Kim and Johnathan Gorman manage to carry the story to watchable heights. Not only does he bear more than a passing resemblance to a young Paul Rudd, but Gorman might also be the embodiment of what would have happened had Paul Rudd’s career gone horribly wrong.

If viewed with a critical eye -- please, don’t strain yourself -- this film represents Jun Chong coming full-circle in his acting career. In Street Soldiers, he’s a mentor to a group of young punks with misplaced aggression; in 1985’s L.A. Streetfighters, he was one of those young punks. In the latter, he was virtually the only “kid” in his high school capable of growing a moustache, which invited disbelief about the appropriateness of the actor’s age relative to his character. By the time Street Soldiers came around, Jun Chong was the perfect age to play a socially awkward uncle who teaches kids how to maim and kill people.

There are many reasons to avoid Street Soldiers. The direction is inept, the acting is subpar, and the fight scenes have little creativity and even less focus. However, it’s the only film to combine Hwang Jang Lee’s only appearance in an American-made film with Hwang Jang Lee’s only appearance prancing around in designer clothes with a fake cobra hanging around his neck. If there’s such a thing as Jun Chong completists, it’s worth seeking out to see his only film of the 1990s and the only one he wrote. Thrown in for no additional cost, you get an epically hammy performance from Jeffrey Rector as Priest, who instantly makes a case for a spot in the Mesmerizing Martial Arts B-Movie Villains Hall of Fame (not a real place … yet). Be forewarned though: this is the weakest of Jun Chong’s output and not a good martial arts film by any stretch.

VHS or YouTube.

4.5 / 7

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