Director: David Huey
Writer: David Huey
Cast: Gary Daniels, David Carradine, Mel Novak, Tadashi Yamashita, Ian Jacklin, Mark Russo, Linda Lightfoot, Scott Shaw, Ava Fabian
While drugs appear pretty regularly in action movies, it’s rare to see the drug experience itself mapped out on the screen. We’ve seen heroes get drugged before or during a big showdown and been treated to first-person blur-vision to share in the character’s perspective. However, it’s uncommon to the action genre to have the experience of the drugged character closely match the experience of watching the movie unfold. In only his third film, David Huey manages to accomplish this with 1991’s Capital Punishment. I guess what I’m really trying to say is that only someone on drugs could have made this movie.
James Thayer (Daniels) is leading a simple life as a fighter working the grueling restaurant-lounge circuit. After tossing his latest opponent through a table of two-for-one appetizers, he gets jumped in the locker room area by a pair of stooges and tazed into blackness. He awakens in an office run by a secretive branch of the DEA investigating the mastermind behind a new and popular street drug called “kick,” which causes heightened euphoria and temporary immunity to pain. The only ill effects are debilitating pain during withdrawal and genetic mutations in the offspring of users. No biggie. While watching an organized but extremely boring slideshow called “Project Kick,” Thayer is shocked to learn that the mastermind is his sensei, Kenji Nakata (Yamashita). The secretive unit, led by the creepy Mason Dover (Novak), wants to use Thayer to bring his old mentor and father-figure to justice, but they may have other motives as well.
Thayer must not only contend with Nakata’s thugs, covert double-crossers, and a kickboxing toolbag played by Ian Jacklin, but he’s also drugged at random throughout the movie with the very drug he’s grown to abhor. DEA agent Nikki Holt (Lightfoot) is disgusted by the corruption within her own ranks and wants to help Thayer, but his experience with the alternate worlds of undercover work and being high as a motherfucker may prevent her from showing him the way. A normally trusting human being, he has confidence in nothing, believes no one, and punches and kicks everyone in his path towards the truth. Can Holt and a doctor versed in Eastern medicine help Thayer to erase the druggy fog preventing him from dispensing justice? Or will everyone be content to just sit around eating Cool Ranch Doritos and laughing uncontrollably?
The combination of "slow and sloppy" can have positive connotations when you're referring to cooking pulled pork or having sex, but when it comes to film fights, it usually spells doom. Capital Punishment contains some of the most hastily put-together fight scenes I've ever seen (and I watched For Hire)! One fight featuring Daniels and Jacklin appears to have been secretly recorded without the actors' knowledge as they worked on blocking out the moves at half-speed. The stunt teams in Filipino productions tend to be reliably solid, but it looks like Huey required a history of faulty vestibular systems as well; these guys make the Shockmaster look coordinated.
The standout sequence would have to be a bar fight between Daniels and Floridian martial arts champ and veteran of No Retreat No Surrender 3, Mark Russo. His beard is just as epic but his part here is even smaller than his small henchman part in NRNS3. The two trade strikes and a long exchange of wrist-lock takedowns in a nod toward the future of film fights by incorporating grappling and MMA tactics. It ends rather memorably with a death-by-pool-cue, but the fight is still marred by crummy shooting angles and a lack of consistent sound effects. Still, you have to take what the film gives you and next to the climactic fight scene between Daniels and American Ninja's Tadashi Yamashita, this is probably the best of the offerings.
David Carradine appears as a behind-the-scenes order-barker and all of his scenes are filmed in a dimly lit office or a big-rig truck interior. He was almost completely wasted here and his character felt tacked-on to what was already a total mess of a plot. Along with Mel Novak, he’s the most actorly of this bunch but he’s rarely afforded the chance to guide this group of mostly inexperienced performers to more watchable dramatic scenes. You don’t necessarily need Carradine to fight either, but he and Daniels share no screen time whatsoever so I’d have to regard this as a wasted opportunity on all fronts.
Capital Punishment is a strange film because its anachronistic narrative both fails and works at the same time. In one sense, it's no different than the hundreds of films like it which ignored any semblance of logic and flauted the rules of escalating action and tension. In a vacuum, by these traditional measures, it falls short. But given the druggy experience of the film's protagonist, the disjointed and often surreal tones actually work pretty well to throw the viewer off-kilter as they try to navigate the film's events. Was this the intended effect by the filmmaker? Probably not, but since I regularly take tremendous satisfaction when receiving credit for unintentionally positive results, I imagine director David Huey would too.
The story is convoluted and confusing, the characters who aren't assholes are uninteresting, and the fight scenes are mostly lackadasical and poorly shot. Yet, despite all of the elements that snowball to make Capital Punishment a forgettable film, there's something about it I still enjoyed. Part of it was Yamashita as a somewhat hilarious villain, but it's also an early Gary Daniels joint where you can see him honing his screen presence and learning how to carry a film in the face of so many other problems, technical and otherwise. There's something admirable about that and you can't really quantify it, but it's present here. However, I can't honestly recommend this to anyone but Daniels completists or action trash enthusiasts who've exhausted all other options.
3 / 7