Director: Steven Austin
Writer: Steven Austin, David Huey
Cast: Ian Jacklin, Sam J. Jones, Mel Novak, Joe Estevez, Julie Merrill, David Loo, Judy Landers
If you chart the career trajectory of a randomly selected marital arts actor who started his or career in the late 1980s or early 1990s, you’ll notice one of two themes. The actor’s filmography either fits on a postage stamp, or it contains a long and winding road of bit parts and stunt work that may or may not have paved the way for lead roles. Examples of the former include actors Rion Hunter and Brad Morris, both of whom turned in great lead villain performances but never again returned to the action genre. On the flipside is a guy like Billy Blanks. He played uncredited henchmen or mini-bosses before graduating to main villain in The King of the Kickboxers and finally settling in as an action lead during his prime DTV years in the 1990s. After several supporting roles in films with Gary Daniels and Don “The Dragon” Wilson, former kickboxer Ian Jacklin answered a similar call for 1993’s Expert Weapon. Did his early film work prepare him for the burden of carrying a film? Um … we’ll get to that.
Jacklin plays Adam Collins, a disrespectful street tough who gets his jollies from carjacking with his partner, Rex (Loo). They botch their latest attempt so badly that the car never leaves its parking space and the duo is forced to flee the police on foot after Rex shoots the car’s female owner in the back. Collins doesn’t appreciate the cruelty of his partner’s methods; after all, he took a nicer approach by only punching her in the face. During the ensuing stand-off with the cops, Collins struggles with one of the officers over a gun and guess who gets shot in the process? No, not Carrot Top. Why would you say that? Random.
While waiting in prison on death row and contemplating the next day’s usual onslaught of high-fives and extra pudding cups as a branded cop-killer, Collins receives a visit from a kindly middle-aged priest who wishes to pray for his eternal soul. The hardened convict responds by whipping out his member and unleashing a weak stream of urine on the priest’s Bible. While most priests might show forgiving disappointment toward this act of disrespect, this man of the cloth kicks Collins in the pills and starts raining blows on him before telling him that he has a choice: come with him, or die by execution. Collins isn’t about to go anywhere with some creepy priest, so he chooses the latter.
As he later watches noxious vapors fill the gas chamber on the day of his execution, Collins falls unconscious, only to awaken in a state of confusion on a cot in a darkened room. So ... there’s a Hell? And you have to sleep on rickety cots? No, actually. Collins has been transported to an underground facility run by Janson (Flash Gordon’s Sam Jones) and his co-pilot and priest impersonator Frank Miller (Novak). They’ve selected Collins for training in a shadowy program designed to turn ruthless and undereducated killers into elite assassins, and Miller has six months to shine this rough stone into a lethal gem.
Is six months enough time to create an elite assassin out of a convict who can’t read or write? When you’ve got the right mix of drama training, computer classes, and karate lessons, it’s apparently more than enough. From the waking hours through the end of the night, Collins is exposed to a smorgasbord of highly specialized training. A drama class is run by the sultry Lynn (Landers) to teach recruits how to perform undercover roles convincingly. A computer class teaches recruits how to hack networks. On the violence front, a course in firearms is taught by the hammy Joe Estevez, and Miller handles the fighting instruction by teaching students karate.
After Collins executes his preliminary assignments and later eliminates a mafia narcotics dealer, he becomes conflicted about the welfare of the kingpin’s blind widow, Vicky (Merrill). In an effort to wipe away the sins of the carjacking which left an innocent woman dead, Collins takes the widow into his care and they go on the run.
So, yeah, this isn’t a good film. In most cases, having a man on fire appear within the first three minutes of your film is a good sign, but the training scenes are pieced together haphazardly and the film gets excessively talky once Jacklin’s character turns into Hitman with a Heart of Gold. It would be all too easy to hang the anchor of blame for this movie’s failures around the neck of Ian Jacklin; after all, he’s the star and gets the lion’s share of screen time. However, I think the combination of a bad script and Jacklin being too green dramatically to carry a film is ultimately what sinks this. Like many martial artists thrust into the cinematic spotlight during the golden age of American DTV films, Jacklin was a kickboxer first and dramatic actor second. I'm not sure you could expect him to convincingly perform dialogue like “Screw you, nobody tells me what to do. I'll see you in hell!” Are there any actors who could? OK, fine ... any actors besides Nic Cage? Jacklin delivers most of his lines with all of the wooden disbelief you’d expect out of a twenty-something non-actor betrayed by poor writing and direction.
The pairing of bad acting and poorly choreographed martial arts can lead to magical, off-kilter cinema, but Expert Weapon isn’t awful enough on either front to embody the kind of reckless DIY spirit typified by films like No Retreat, No Surrender or even City Dragon. The action is pedestrian with poor camera angles on the fight scenes and a lack of imagination in the choreography. The actual techniques of Jacklin’s offense look good, but the filmmakers fail to make his moves flow together and these scenes have a stilted vibe. The wooden staff fight near the end of the film between Collins and an old crime partner is a cut above the rest, but it’s below-average even when compared to similarly below-average films.
As far as mentors go, Mel Novak’s asthmatic karate instructor Frank Milller is pretty good. It’s somewhat interesting to note that his initial appearance in Adam’s jail cell as a priest wasn’t such a stretch dramatically; Novak has apparently been involved with prison ministry for many years. Whether or not he kicks pestilent inmates in the balls and recruits them into secretive assassination squads, we can’t be sure.
While the film overall is rather poorly written and acted, the filmmakers make a genuine attempt at contrasting the Miller and Janson characters. Janson is the brash drill sergeant, always chewing on a stogie and referring to underlings as maggots. When he’s not sucking on his inhaler, the asthmatic Miller attempts to instill flimsy facsimiles of Eastern philosophy during martial arts training sessions. Performance-wise, Jones and Novak are the best parts of this movie, but even their collective dramatic competence isn’t enough to offset the film’s various technical and narrative flaws.
The only condition under which I could recommend Expert Weapon would be if someone asked me what movie might cause a spouse to withhold sex indefinitely. It’s a rough watch. There are a few small morsels of hokey violence and unintentional humor to savor, but not enough to satisfy a healthy craving for either element. For a kinder and gentler experience with the work of Ian Jacklin, try Death Match or his wigged-out turn as main villain in Don Wilson’s Ring of Fire 2.
Netflix, Amazon, EBay.
2.5 / 7