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