Director: Jalal Merhi
Writers: J. Stephen Maunder
Cast: Jalal Merhi, Loren Avedon, James Hong, Karen Sheperd, Gary Foo
Depending on where your interests lie, Operation Golden Phoenix is either a preparedness exercise conducted in California with special attention given to emergency events like earthquakes and terrorist attacks, or Jalal Merhi’s 1994 directorial debut. In either case, you’re dealing with a potentially disastrous scenario.
Merhi plays Marc Assante, a private security expert charged with escorting a recently unearthed bounty of rare and ancient Middle Eastern artifacts. His partner is Ivan Jones (Avedon), an affable kickboxer with a competitive streak (surprise!) The film opens with the two partners embraced in an intense arm wrestling match before Jones gets a call from Mr. Chang (Hong), a greedy criminal mastermind. Based on the cryptic tone of their conversation, there’s no guesswork about their intentions.
Later that night, Assante and Jones are driving a van full of shiny knick-knacks when they find their first checkpoint blocked off by a group of cars. After mostly failing to ram through it, Assante leaves the vehicle and starts shooting dudes and squinting a lot. A group of fake cops appear on the scene and before Assante is knocked out for resisting arrest, he sees Ivan gunned down. When he regains consciousness, the van has been blown to bits, the treasure is gone, and he’s under arrest.
As Assante spends the next several hours getting grilled by cops about the missing artifacts and beating up other inmates in his holding cell, Mr. Chang and Jones are celebrating their incredible coup. The crown jewel of the haul is a rare medallion which, when combined with its counterpart, shows the way to an even greater stash of loot in Lebanon. It doesn’t take long for a phone call to ruin their high spirits, however. Mr. Chang lambastes his partner in crime for leaving Assante to the cops instead of leaving him for dead. Only seconds after being denied bail, their patsy outmuscled his captors and fled into the crowded and eerily polite Toronto landscape.
Just after he escapes police custody and needs to flee the country, Assante happens to have a girlfriend who works as a wig (and mustache) master at a location theater production company. A little too convenient, but in a career full of bad turtlenecks, ponytails, and banana hammocks, it leads to the silliest look Merhi has ever sported: a gray moustache, a big mop of salt-and-pepper hair, and a fedora. Had he simply rolled with it for the rest of the movie, this could have been a pantheon film. Did I get a screen capture of this amazing get-up? Alas, I did not, for you must experience it for yourself (i.e. I can’t currently do screenshots for VHS titles).
As the principals leave Toronto and the focus switches to the pursuit of treasures and vengeance in Beirut, we begin to understand the purpose of this film: it’s a tourism commercial. Footage of the country's exciting car rallies, ancient landmarks, and bikini-clad beach-goers paints it as a popular destination for world travelers in search of exotic luxury. While it’s an obvious love letter to Merhi’s home country, it's also a giant middle finger to the audience. The story introduces characters of no consequence, Assante behaves in completely illogical ways, flaky double-crosses commence, and the action escalates in frequency, if not quality.
As one might expect from a movie in the Film One catalog, the action is hit or miss depending on who’s involved. The inciting incident where Assante is set up is notable for the heavy usage of slo-mo, squibs, and even a rare and vaunted vansplosion. All good signs. During that same scene, however, the stunt driving is done by a middle-aged man in a baseball cap. Loren Avedon was not that man. This lack of effort is redeemed by a scene later on in the film where Ivan Jones fights off a group of surprisingly well-conditioned archaeologists, one of whom challenges him briefly in a rare shovel fight. The scene ends rather hilariously as a man screams after getting kicked off a high wall, but only falls about three feet to the ground. We get the requisite close-up of his crumpled body anyways.
The climactic fight scene between Avedon and Merhi might actually be the latter’s best screen fight ever. That’s not saying a lot, but Avedon sells his offense admirably and throws some decent kicks as well. The fight is less about the choreography than the environment though; they do battle at a sprawling temple complex in what I believe to be the Great Court of Baalbek which houses some of the best-preserved ruins of the Roman period. Even if the editing isn’t so hot (it isn’t), the shots for this scene are composed really well and it’s rare that we see structures of this size and scale photographed this nicely for a martial arts b-movie. In that sense, it’s unique and legitimately interesting from a visual standpoint.
Following a string of popular lead hero roles, this marks the very first lead villain role for Loren Avedon. Despite not having much to work with on the page, he does a fairly good job with the Ivan Jones character. Perhaps because he lacks the brawny physical stature to play a more menacing bad guy -- Matthias and Bolo come to mind -- Avedon brings conniving and sleazy qualities to the role and they fit the character to a T. The film’s opening arm-wrestling scene sets up the rivalry between Ivan and Jalal, and the former’s reluctance to actually kill his partner despite numerous opportunities suggests competitive advantage more than cold-hearted malice as his initial motivation. His misdeeds from that point only escalate in treachery, so it was a decent character development to watch unfold. Mild, but it was there.
On the flipside, I can only guess that Karen Sheperd just really wanted to go to Beirut for a few weeks of fun in the sun. She’s not given a whole lot to do here and her character, the sister of a princess who owns another medallion, felt like a late addition to the story. She does have a fight near the back-end of the film, so it’s made to feel important, but it has none of the visual impact granted to the Merhi-Avedon battle and it didn’t appear that her opponent was a trained martial artist. Certainly not one of her better roles.
The film’s shaky ambitions on “epic-ness” is best encapsulated by the trailer and its uniquely awful voice-over. I won’t embed it here but I’d invite you to check it out on YouTube and behold the incredible amounts of random SAT words and cliches apparently strung together during the throes of a peyote binge. If, by some unholy miracle, the nonsensical priest from For Hire and the guy who wrote this voice-over copy met and collaborated, the output would tear a wormhole in the cosmic fabric of this world that would consume and destroy all meaning in the English language. Books would burst into flames. People would be forced to communicate through a crude Morse code of grunts and drool. It’d be worse than Sarah Palin and George W. Bush trying to answer Google interview questions.
Some things in life are consistently obvious. The sky is blue, water is wet, and Jalal Merhi stars in vanity projects and surrounds himself with more talented actors and martial artists. As evidenced by his Lebanese descent and the choice to shoot a good portion of the film in Beirut, Operation Golden Phoenix was obviously a labor of love. To Merhi’s credit, the footage of his homeland is composed fairly well. Dramatically, he isn’t completely atrocious here -- though he comes pretty close -- and the film as a whole is much more ambitious than his usual work. Overall though, it struggles to find any real rhythm or momentum, and the action isn’t done well enough to elevate it above below-average action film fodder. For Merhi, Avedon, and Sheperd completists only.
At this time, VHS only. And for you serious film freaks out there, Laserdisc.