Director: Richard W. Munchkin
Writers: Richard W. Munchkin, Steve Tymon, Paul Maslak
Cast: Don Wilson, Ian Jacklin, Sy Richardson, Evan Lurie, Dale Jacoby, Maria Ford, Vince Murducco, Eric Lee, Ron Yuan, Gerald Okamura, David Loo
The Blackjack Hall of Fame counts mathematicians and computer analysts among its members. Its 2009 inductee also happens to be the director of the 1993 film, Ring of Fire 2: Blood and Steel. So was Richard W. Munchkin’s choice to follow up his 1991 Don Wilson vehicle a gamble? Will the return of Maria Ford as Julie be a total bust? Does the film double up the action of the original and hit you with the whole loaf of kung-fu, or stand by idly and force you to split? Having exhausted my full arsenal of terrible jokes incorporating Blackjack terminology, let’s get to the movie.
In the first installment of the Ring of Fire saga, the filmmakers combined elements of West Side Story with Kickboxer and washed it down with a chaser of racial tension and Zubaz pants. For the sequel, Munchkin and company crib from the Mad Max franchise, The Warriors, and almost every search-and-rescue film you’ve ever seen. The question is not so much whether the sequel improves upon its predecessor. Rather: do I like a movie that shamelessly rips off a lot of fun genre movies more than one which borrows heavily from a musical I was forced to watch during my freshman year of high school?
The last time we saw Johnny Wu (Wilson) and Julie (Ford), he was carrying her out of an arena after her brother accidentally stabbed her with a samurai sword. Their relationship has since evolved into an engagement, and the opening scene finds the lovebirds shopping for a ring. Unfortunately, a group of thieves are pulling a smash-and-grab at that very store and one thug has his eye on Julie’s rock. When she resists, he uses the pimp hand, which is generally inadvisable in the presence of Dr. Wu, the best kickboxing surgeon in cinema history. He puts the jerk through a window but before the gang scatters, Julie is shot. A car chase ensues between the cops and robbers, and one carsplosion and five smashed panels of glass later, we’re off to a good start.
Johnny tends to Julie’s wounds at the hospital just in time for her to be kidnapped by Predator (Lurie), the number-one guy in a gang run by the devious Kalin, played by Ian Jacklin. Following a skirmish at the hospital in which his brother is shot, Kalin gets arrested, vows revenge and Johnny is left to freak out over the disappearance of his fiancee. Kalin’s in police custody for all of about five minutes, as Predator runs the county prison bus off the road and uses his mind bullets to make it explode as the thugs escape to their underground lair (literally).
What do you do when the love of your life gets kidnapped by a bunch of guys who look like they wandered off the set of The Road Warrior? You call your boy Ron Yuan (reprising his role as Li) on his car phone and tell him to assemble the crew. In this case, the crew consists of Li, Kwong (Eric Lee), and the two guys they were fighting to the death in a race war only six weeks ago in Chuck (Murducco) and Brad (Jacoby). It was comforting to see these characters back, but it was a little surreal to see Jacoby as a good guy. He practically made a career out of douchey, Zabka-lite villain roles, and his face-turn felt like bad pro wrestling booking more than the organic result of virtuous actions.
Johnny can’t wait for his buddies because they’re too busy surfing or eating guacamole or some other time-consuming activity common to native Californians, so he goes it alone. Within seconds of entering their underground lair, Johnny is attacked by a bunch of dudes in goalie masks brandishing flash lights. A homeless veteran named Ernest (Richardson) comes to Johnny’s aid before begrudgingly leading him through the hobo underground to where Julie is being held by Kalin. Along the way, they encounter all manner of fighting gangs in weird outfits. There’s the Garbage Gang, a group of rowdies in trash-covered football shoulder pads. The Shadow Warriors do not dress in all black, but rather in colorful outfits with day-glo paint smeared on their faces. The Nightrats are not rat-human hybrids, but guys on rollerblades and skateboards with head-mounted flashlights. Would you believe that the majority of the film’s budget went towards a Russian-built supercomputer used to generate these ingenious naming conventions?
After Johnny and Ernest fight through the various gangs, the trailing Li, Kwong, Brad, and Chuck get the sloppy seconds and do some fighting of their own. This pattern continues all the way to the final showdown, where Kalin and company preside over a cage and a wild and unwashed crowd. It’s never stated what the purpose of the fighting venue is, but we’ll have to assume it’s something to pass the time when you’re living in the Los Angeles sewer system.
A quick note for you burgeoning filmmakers out there: just because you load up on neon wardrobe and flashlights, it doesn’t mean you can skimp on lighting. There were stretches where it was tough to see the movement during action scenes simply because they weren’t lit well enough. Beyond that, Munchkin makes decent use of the locations and the film definitely has a choked, dark, subterranean feel to it. And no, I did not draw that conclusion because I practice autoerotic asphyxiation while watching films to review... although that is an interesting idea for one of those month-long, themed post series.
The story structure of the various “mini-boss” gang fights is a good device for driving up the action quotient. The quality of the fights varies though. During an isolated stretch, Eric Lee puts on the best fight in the movie where he wards off some attackers with a three-section staff. The fights in Kalin’s cage are decent, but they have the same limitations on space and visuals that shooting through the obstacle of chain link fencing always does. Still, everyone gets to show their stuff and the editing was often reminiscent of the Wing Kong/Chang Sing alley fight in Big Trouble in Little China: quick cuts between shots of impacting blows with less attention given to flowy combination exchanges.
The cast of characters is solid. Eric Lee is amusing as Kwong, equal parts nervous wreck and total horndog. Yuan, Murducco, and Jacoby do little to stand out beyond Murducco’s unprompted “LET’S GET NAKED!” line when they encounter a gang of foxy females. Evan Lurie has some decent lines and may have been a more menacing main villain. However, from the ridiculous clothes and accessories (BBQ rib necklace?) to the obvious wig, Jacklin nails his part as Kalin.
The scene that made it for me was a phone call he makes to Johnny at the hospital to deliver his ransom demand of $250,000 in exchange for Julie. She grabs the phone and screams for her lover not to buy the bait. He bops her on the head with the receiver and with a spoken cadence straight out of Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, admonishes her: “I’M TRYING TO USE THE PHONE!” before telling Johnny, “pardon me, your wife was being a bitch.” Amazing.
At the end of the day, Ring of Fire II: Blood and Steel is an offbeat and enjoyable sequel. It’s less grim in tone and the filmmakers had some fun with the different gangs and their respective wardrobes. It doesn’t quite have me itching for the continued adventures of Dr. Johnny Wu and his merry band of meatheads, but that’s not the goal. At its essence, it’s derivative and disposable DTV action that has its moments. Tune in for Eric Lee hamming it up, some absurd villain performances, and the silly costumes.
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5 / 7