Director: Woo-sang Park
Writer: Ji-Woon Hong, Jaime Mendoza-Nava
Cast: Jun Chong, Phillip Rhee, James Lew, Bill Wallace, Loren Avedon
Bear Republic Brewery’s Racer 5 might be my favorite IPA of all time. You sudsy connoisseurs are probably chuckling at my naivety on the subject, but I had it for the first time recently and gave it immediate and favorable judgement. Taste is like that, so is smell: in analyzing the respective properties, you usually know immediately whether you like something or not. Movies are more slippery. The 1985 Woo-sang Park film L.A. Streetfighters is one that often popped up when researching the filmographies of Loren Avedon, James Lew, and Phillip Rhee. Digging deeper into some random reviews, I found a lot of “so bad it’s good!” reactions and added it to my Netflix queue. I watched it. I probably shrugged. I moved on.
It was added as a “midnight movie” selection to last year’s edition of the New York Asian Film Festival and due to time restrictions, I failed to attend. With fresh eyes, I just revisited the film last week and have concluded this: in terms of cinematic gut reactions, 2009 Karl Brezdin’s guts don’t know shit. This movie is incredible.
Phillip Rhee stars as Tony, a charismatic and likeable high school student. The only problem? He’s the new guy in town and doesn’t look quite tough enough to not be fucked with. Part of it is his affable demeanor but most of it is that he wears the same gray argyle sweater to school every day. (Unless it’s a Members Only jacket, wearing the same clothes on consecutive days is not a cool thing to do.) As a result, the school’s bully, Chan (Lew) and his gang of thugs target Tony for a beatdown, unless he can pay the fee: five dollars. Luckily, the rebellious Young (Chong) sticks up for Tony and challenges Chan to a duel under the cover of night. While his ample mustache might suggest he stayed back a few years, Young is a tough customer and has the leather jacket, black fingerless gloves, and occasional flowy scarf to prove it.
The bo staff is the weapon of choice for the rumble between Chan and Young, and it’s a legitimately well-choreographed fight scene that puts over Young’s skills very effectively. He dominates the contest and Chan’s gang goes scurrying. A casual observer to the proceedings notices that Young is a formidable physical specimen capable of quickly disarming his opponent and immediately offers him a wad of cash to work as private security. We then get the first of several WTF moments, as Young grips the cash in hand, turns his head toward the camera, and begins laughing maniacally before it abruptly cuts to the next scene. Incredible.
Like Chan, Young has a gang of super-tough friends, and also like Chan, he comes from a single-parent household. During a rotating cascade of poorly-lit, ineptly performed, and terribly dubbed scenes of melodrama, Young laments his place in America and his mother’s rampant alcoholism. Will she ever accept him or be a real mother to him? The dilemma frustrates him to no end and he constantly vents to Tony, but his friend seems to think that he should simply concentrate on school, the one thing he can control. Like Bill Gates before him, Young is all “fuck school, I gots to get PAID” and continues to bust heads during the gang’s adventures in private security and random parking garage rumbles.
As Young and friends rush fist-first into the alluring world of working the door at Mexican restaurants and dance clubs, Tony catches the eye of the adoring Lily (King) and they begin to date. Despite their innocent puppy love, this is a highly combustible situation because Lily is Chan’s sister. She attempts to explain away her brother’s dickheaded behavior as the result of their mother abandoning the family. The honesty between them and their mutual love for ice cream only fortifies their romantic bonds, and it seems as if Young is growing resentful. As the gang’s caretaker who took Tony in as a friend, it troubles him to see his friend happy with the sister of his arch-rival. This manifests itself in an awkward scene where Young drives around looking for hookers for Tony, and mistakes non-hookers for actual hookers as Tony shifts nervously in his seat all the while.
There are so many more scenes just like this, none of which can be adequately described in the written word as a means of capturing the same random and off-beat spirit that an actual viewing could. By the time Young steals a drug dealer’s money and the gang is stalked by Bill “Superfoot” Wallace and a samurai-hitman fights a gang member in what looks like an expressionistic art gallery, your head will be spinning with the pure fun of it all. Though, for all the goofiness and technical gaffes, the ending to this movie is bleak as all-fuck which made me love it all that much more.
The action overall is quite good when you can actually see what’s transpiring. While the terrible attention to lighting hurts at times, the choreography is mostly crisp, the movement is framed well, and the editing isn’t overdone. More than the technical components though, the roster of fighters helps these scenes succeed. Rhee, Chong, and Lew are all legitimate taekwondo masters and the inclusion of karate and kickboxing champion Bill Wallace was a cool way to bridge the 1970s and early 80s output of the Chuck Norris era, and the burgeoning talent and work of the 1980s Los Angeles taekwondo scene. I didn’t spot him fighting, but Loren Avedon -- a TKD practitioner -- makes a brief appearance as one of Lew’s buddies. Mark Hicks, who cries over a birthday cake here, has a long history of Hollywood stunt work, just appeared in the action blockbuster Fast Five, and achieved unfortunate Internet fame as Afro Ninja. Also deserving special mention is Danny Gibson, who appears as the leader of the Spikes gang and has one of the most unique looks in a film loaded with questionable fashion sense. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen a mustachioed man in a belly shirt yelling “YOU'RE DEAD MEAT MOTHERFUCKER! DON'T FUCK WITH... THE SPIKES!”
The terrible lighting. The dubbed dialogue. The fingerless black leather gloves. The VHS artwork that looks like it belongs on the cover of some obscure side-scrolling Data East beat-em-up for the NES. You get all of this and more in the highly enjoyable gang violence romp that is L.A. Streetfighters. While it will never win points on polish or artistic achievement, the film is legitimately historic for other reasons. It’s a cinematic flashpoint for some of the biggest figures in the American martial arts b-movie scene. Phillip Rhee went on to head up the infamous Best of the Best franchise. James Lew would become one of the most prolific stunt performers in Hollywood. Loren Avedon played prominent heroes and villains for the next 20 years. While Chong never achieved the same longevity cinematically, this is his most consistently entertaining piece of work and a legit midnight movie gem. Highly recommended.
Amazon, EBay, YouTube. Currently in Save Hell on Netflix.