3.23.2011

East L.A. Warriors (1989)

PLOT: A young man struggling to stay afloat in the violent ocean of Los Angeles gang life seeks out an ex-gang member to teach him the fighting arts. Meanwhile, a powerful drug dealer stokes the flames of tension between ethnic factions as backs are stabbed, traps are set, and suspenders are worn without any shirts beneath them.

Director: Addison Randall
Writers: Raymond Martino, Addison Randall
Cast: Kamar De Los Reyes, Tony Bravo, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, Jastereo Coviare, James Dalesandro, Sabino Villa Lobos, William Smith

PLOT THICKENER:
At first glance, there’s no reason that a movie which places martial-arts in the world of Los Angeles gangbangers should work. Action movies with kickfighting heroes who detest the use of guns are commonplace, but no amount of hand-to-hand fighting skill can stop a random spray of bullets. Why bother trying to meld the two? The 1989 PM Entertainment film East L.A. Warriors dares to bridge these two disparate concepts. What emerges is a thoughtful social commentary where punching and kicking is offered as a alternate to the destructive trappings of extreme gun violence and fatal payback. Yes, someone does get shot in the end.

A recent drive-by shooting at a birthday party has left some dead and many injured. A local Chicano gang called Los Lobos is itching to take revenge on the guilty party, an African-American gang known as the Boppers. However, a gang hanger-on named Paulo (De Los Reyes) is trying to deter them from any quick decisions because his brother died in the shooting and he doesn’t want to see the violence escalate. Having not been “jumped in,” Paulo’s opinion means little and the Lobos’ second-in-command Hector (Villa Lobos) is angered by the suggestion that the act should go unpunished. The gang’s president, Miguel, barters a compromise and they agree that vengeance will be visited upon their enemies at “the Games.”


Organized by powerful local drug kingpin Chesare (Hilton-Jacobs), “the Games” are a modern-day fighting contest not unlike the gladiator competitions of ancient times. Though, instead of fighting to the death with swords or spears, gang members fight for the upper hand until a gun is randomly made available; whomever fetches it first gets to shoot his opponent. Instead of fighting outdoors in a grand coliseum, they fight in a boxing ring with the technicolor dance-club lighting system from Don Wilson’s Ring of Fire. The proceedings are marked by gimmicky call-and-response shenanigans between Chesare and the different groups, and the factions paint their faces up like Kabuki theater actors (if Asian), 1930s street mimes (if African-American), or jungle soldiers (if white). While the various outcomes guarantee nothing more than bragging rights to the gangs, the benefits to Chesare are obvious: thinning ranks mean more territory and more power.

Chesare’s notoriety and the increasing gang activities have caught the attention of Eddie Rodriguez (Dalesandro) of the LAPD. The detective wants to help end the gun violence between gangs but he lacks an inside man; anyone close enough to the action refuses to work with the police for fear of retribution. He soon finds a partner in Aurelio (Bravo), an aging former gangbanger. As a resident of the barrio, he’s reluctant to act as an informer but also sees the value of reforming oneself and denouncing the cycle of killing. He agrees only to help bring down Chesare, which suits Rodriguez just fine. However, the detective isn’t the only one looking to Aurelio for an assist.


While wearing the wrong colors in rival territory can get you shot in some places, Paulo is lucky to escape with only about half of a beatdown before a buff, mustachioed fighter in sweatpants comes to his assistance and sends his attackers scurrying. In the days to come, Paulo attempts to solicit the man for training, but is consistently rebuked and even told to get a gun to defend himself.

As reluctant fight gurus are want to do, Aurelio eventually buckles and agrees to train the undisciplined but willing Paulo. The training scenes are befitting of a film made in the post-Karate Kid era; Paulo learns martial arts primarily by holding burning incense or paint cans for extended periods of time, and getting hit in the stomach repeatedly. This training is so effective, in fact, that Paulo’s gang initiation into Los Lobos consists of him blocking punches from other gang members and striking his way to membership. Which is actually the complete opposite of getting “jumped in,” i.e. getting your ass stomped in gangspeak.


In his portrayal of the villainous Chesare, former Welcome Back, Kotter actor Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs is the best part of the movie. As Large William of The Gentlemen’s Guide to Midnite Cinema pointed out in a recent episode, Hilton-Jacobs wanders between a terrible Latin American accent and a half-hearted Caribbean accent in his performance. While nothing Chesare says is particularly memorable, it’s fun to guess which dialect he’ll use to deliver his lines.


Beyond ethnicity, Chesare’s sexual preference is equally ambiguous. While most drug kingpins would surround themselves with a harem of honies, Chesare can be found playing classical piano while wearing an open, polka-dot silk robe and getting a massage from one of his male helpers. His visit to the fine-dining restaurant where Paulo and Hector work as waiters is equally odd. Chesare accentuates a sizable cash tip by squeezing Hector’s face in an uncomfortably long embrace while smirking at him. All of this could add up to absolutely nothing but it was interesting to see an even mildly subversive characterization in this type of movie, at this point in time.

This film was just the second in director Addison Randall’s filmography and it shows. Flashback scenes are filmed in black-and-white and while this is a bit conventional, I can’t really knock that technique. The bigger issue was using the same actors to portray much younger versions of themselves and making no effort at all to make them look younger. Most directors would have told the cast members to -- I don’t know, shave? -- but Randall just puts bandanas on everyone and rolls film. In context this is a pretty egregious wardrobe error but the clothing is otherwise pretty excellent. Hilton-Jacobs rocks a slick all-white suit through most of the film and Kamar De Los Reyes is often found in a shirtless-but-for-suspenders ensemble. Pretty hilarious for an alleged gangbanger. Meanwhile, Tony Bravo runs around in nothing more than a white wifebeater and sweatpants. He was either the victim of a really shitty wardrobe department or made a conscious decision every day to roll out of bed and go to work in his PJs, Zuckerberg-style.


Aside from shootings, the action in the film is pretty much non-existent with the exception of the “Games” scene towards the end of the film. Even then, you’re not getting martial-arts contests so much as you’re getting a lot of posturing to the crowd and yelling in between random kicks and punches. The choreographers are also pretty liberal with the use of pro wrestling moves like clotheslines, cross body blocks, and even back-body drops. For you WWE Attitude-era fans, we also get an approximation of the first “People’s Elbow” in history.

The end credits deserve mention for two primary reasons: the amateurish quasi-Comic Sans font, and the epic song, “Living to Die.” With music and lyrics by director Addison Randall and actor Jastereo Coviare, the striking rock track is the best thing Trey Parker and Matt Stone never recorded.

VERDICT:
East L.A. Warriors predates Boyz n the Hood. It came before Menace II Society. Juice, New Jack City, and Blood In Blood Out all followed in its footsteps. Sure -- all of the aforementioned are better films, but how many of them feature Freddie “Boom Boom” Washington pimping in a white suit or getting massages while playing piano? Where else can you find William Smith cashing a check as a restaurant manager and delivering lines with marbles in his mouth? Which films dare to propose fisticuffs as an adequate alternative to gun violence? None! So of you want a clumsy cinematic marriage of L.A. gang warfare and flimsy martial-arts philosophy, East L.A. Warriors can fill the gap.

AVAILABILITY:
Netflix and Amazon.

4 / 7
 

3.17.2011

Enforcer from Death Row (1978)

PLOT: A terrorist syndicate based in Manila has been using to ninjas to murder intelligence operatives from the World Organization for Peace. Even worse, they threaten to wipe out the population of the Philippines using a biochemical agent. Even worse than that, the biochemical agent consists of powdered Tang and Tab Cola.

Directors: Marshall M. Borden, Efren C. Piñon
Writer: Leo Fong
Cast: Leo Fong, Darnell Garcia, John Hammond, Cameron Mitchell, Ann Farber, Booker T. Anderson


PLOT THICKENER:
While this is our second film from the Philippines in the last three weeks, and third overall, Enforcer from Death Row is our first film from the 1970s as well as the first starring Leo Fong. Yes, it all adds up to a lot of random digits. Some people find numbers to be fun (dorks, geniuses), but for the rest of us, we have this 1978 Filipino action trash romp to rely on for our chuckles.

The 1970s were a trying time for peace. While the Vietnam War drew to a close, the Cold War was at what Julia Child might call a rolling boil. The Arab-Israeli conflict kicked off in 1973 with the Yom Kippur War, and the Lebanese War started in 1975. Coups, terrorist operations, and dictators dominated the headlines and strife was at levels unseen since that time they outlawed a nifty little cough suppressant called Heroin.

Just as war produces heroes, so does peace. T.L. Young (Fong) is an innocent man on death row in a San Francisco prison. Fortunately, for the World Organization for Peace, he’s a rare candidate with experience and physical tools they desperately need. All of their intelligence operatives based in Manila have been killed off by a terrorist group called NOMAD, which now threatens to wipe out the population of the Philippines using a biological weapon unless they receive $45 million in cash. Since the organization would rather take their chances on a disposable convict than pay the money, Young is tapped as an “outside man” for his unique set of skills: martial-arts mastery, firearms expertise, and a choice moustache. Like every good action hero, he comes correct with his own titular theme song: “Outside Man,” the funkiest orchestral-soul track this side of Shaft.


After Young’s execution is staged for the prison warden and members of the press, his body is taken to a nearby hospital and revived. After regaining consciousness, he’s greeted by a member of the peacenik organization and told in the vaguest terms possible that a special assignment awaits him at headquarters in Arizona. His response? “How much money, and who do I kill?” Points for being direct and concise.

In exchange for a cool $100,000, Young will assume the new identity of Albert Lim and begin working undercover to take down NOMAD. Upon arriving in Manila, he has to touch base with a series of different contacts. Given no instructions other than to “have fun and stay sober,” Young, errr.... Lim, jets off to the land of chicken adobo and Manny Pacquiao.

Evil doesn’t stop and throw its legs up on the ottoman while Young is getting acclimated to his new surroundings, though. The thugs at NOMAD are sewing seeds of instability at every turn: cooking up epidemic bacteria and viruses, stealing documents, killing informers, and lubing deals for massive arms caches.

I couldn’t tell you who played Spencer, the leader of the terrorist group, and no, that’s not because I’m unable to tell the difference between Filipino people. Assholes -- why would you suggest that? It’s because neither the credits nor the IMDb entry list the cast and characters. For that reason, I’ll be referring to the Darnell Garcia character as Rego, because that’s sort of what it sounded like when other characters addressed him. As the head hatchet man, he trains the syndicate’s squad of ninja assassins when he’s not having threesomes with busty women or torturing people using snakes, rats, or power tools. Or was it torturing busty women and have threesomes with snakes, rats, and power tools? Either way, it’s pretty sleazy behavior, but not as bizarre as the group‘s other muscle, a 300-pound black man named Monster. What he lacks in fashion sense -- he wears a filthy half-shirt which exposes his beer belly -- he makes up in his propensity for doing bumps of coke after completing tasks.


You could nitpick about a lot of things in this type of movie, but for my money, the misappropriation of the ninja archetype was the most egregious. In Enforcer... the only characteristics which NOMAD’s ninjas share with their brethren are masks and throwing stars. Sure, they drop randomly from ceiling panels every so often, but they also run into traffic in the middle of the day and toss Molotov cocktails from moving trucks. Resourceful, sure, but there’s nothing particularly stealthy about that.

The fight scenes have an unrefined but energetic and rompy style to them, highlighted by a brawl between Young, Rego, and a group of ninjas in a burning chemical laboratory. During Young’s early training, we also see a free-flow stickfighting drill with eskrima Grandmaster Angel Cabales. While there’s no shortage of action, some of the bigger action set pieces are terribly slow to develop. During a dramatic chase scene which finds our hero driving perilously toward a cliff, Young escapes his convertible by latching onto a rope ladder lowered by a moving helicopter. This would have looked pretty bad-ass had the car not been traveling 8 miles per hour. There’s also some really poor night shots that failed mightily to incorporate action as well as a glaring continuity error where a moustache appears suddenly on Leo Fong’s previously clean-shaven face when he looks up to react to an explosion. These aren’t terrible gaffes, and I might even regard them as charming, but they did take away from the action scenes a bit.


For the uninitiated, Fong was born in China, moved to Arkansas at the age of five, and learned boxing as a teenager and martial arts in his 20s. He sparred with Bruce Lee and wrote or directed over 20 films. Best of all, he has a fairly pronounced Southern drawl, which some have mistaken -- at least in this film -- as a bad dubbing job. While an Asian guy with a Southern accent should equal cinematic gold, Fong’s rich mahogany dramatic style and age may have held him back. He was around 50 when this was filmed and only grew older through the American action boom of the 1980s. Still, Fong carved out a good niche for himself and worked with everyone from action stars like Richard Norton, Billy Blanks, and Reb Brown, to dramatic actors such as Stack Pierce, George Cheung, and Cameron Mitchell.

Splitting the duties at director are Marshall M. Borden, who would never again helm another film, and Efren C. Piñon, perhaps most famous for the 1983 horror-fantasy The Killing of Satan. Perhaps the more notable production credit is Frank Harris, listed as cinematographer. He’d go on to direct Fong in Killpoint (1984) and Low Blow (1986), both of which will be covered in the coming months.


VERDICT:
There are no great surprises here. You get exactly what’s coming to you: Leo Fong in a low-budget late 1970s Filipino action movie. There’s bad dubbing, random gore, random nudity, rape, the stunts are often slow to develop, the plot is convoluted, the villains are sleazy, and most of the production is sloppy as all fuck, but somehow it’s still an entertaining ride when you’ve come out the other side. In other words, Enforcer from Death Row is like 80% of 1970s Filipino action movies. If you like that type of thing, have at it. If you don’t, go watch The King’s Speech. I heard a lot of people over the age of 60 really liked it.

AVAILABILITY:
Netflix and Amazon.

4 / 7

3.11.2011

Shootfighter: Fight to the Death (1993)

PLOT: Two young fighters become live bait for an epic showdown in the dangerous world of full-contact martial-arts known as shootfighting. Unlike actual live bait, they can defend themselves and don’t live in dirt. Like live bait, they are covered in mucus and glisten in the sun.

Director: Patrick Allen
Writers: Larry Felix Jr., Judd Lynn, Peter Shaner
Cast: William Zabka, Michael Bernardo, Bolo Yeung, Martin Kove, Maryam D’Abo, Sigal Diamant, James Pax, Hakim Alston, John Barrett, Roger Yuan, Kenn Scott


PLOT THICKENER:
The “tournament” as a major plot device in martial-arts films began in earnest with 1973’s Enter the Dragon, was polished by 1978’s Master of the Flying Guillotine, and popularized by 1986’s Bloodsport. Countless imitators of the latter would follow in the late 1980s and early 1990s, few of which had distinguishing features to set them apart from the pack. The 1992 feature Shootfighter: Fight to the Death, the first and only directorial effort from Patrick Allen, is the result of three screenwriters with three distinct ideas about the film’s premise. The first writer’s concept: “It’s like Bloodsport, but with weapons.” The second said, “It’s like Bloodsport, but with a lot of gratuitous gore.” The third said, “It’s like Bloodsport, but not as good.”

Just as France is known for wine and cheese, Hong Kong is apparently known for underground full-contact fighting tournaments and that’s where our story begins. Shingo, played by the eminently badass Bolo Yeung, has just capped off his latest victory. He and his buddy, Po (Yuan) are stoked because they’re on the verge of meeting in the finals for a respectful contest between two masters.


Before that can happen, Po needs to defeat Lee, played by Martin Kove. I’m sure he’s a nice guy in real life but onscreen, where it counts, Kove is a mean motherfucker. After a sweaty slo-mo beatdown, he rips out Po’s throat. This goes over like a fart in church and everyone stands around bewildered at Lee’s lethal faux pas. He’s all “what gives? Only a fight to the death can determine a true champion!” and the referee (character actor George Cheung) does him like a moderator does a troll and bans him for life.

Years later, Shingo has left the memories of shootfighting behind in Hong Kong to train a student named Ruben (Zabka) for sanctioned fighting competitions in the United States. It was a little strange to see Chong Li and Johnny Lawrence, two of the most prolific martial-arts film villains of the 1980s, leaving their dickish typecasts behind to join forces as good guys. Shingo brings the stoic wisdom and Ruben is a sympathetic and mostly likeable character. He has a loyal girlfriend Cheryl (D’Abo), his own martial-arts school for children, and a teeming pile of debt. After all, children aren’t made of money, they’re made of boogers and ear infections. Those don’t pay the bills, at least not until the dollar collapses.


After finishing up at class one day, the brother of Ruben’s girlfriend, Nick (Bernardo), makes a surprise appearance after what Cheryl claims was a long absence. This is given no real explanation and for all we know he could be coming back from a sex change operation, but we know for sure that he’s a restless spirit because he rides a motorcycle and has a ponytail. While not as domesticated as Ruben, Nick shares the same love for martial arts and their bromance resumes without having missed a beat.

Nick is not only the brother of the girl Ruben is porking, he’s also Ruben’s best friend and confidante. Ruben reveals to Nick that the school isn’t doing well and a group of rednecks keep trying to shake him down for debts owed. While he’s not desperate enough to offer massage services on Craigslist, he’s in a serious financial hole. Since the organized competitions in which Nick and Ruben compete only offer medals and rankings as prizes, it will take a golden opportunity for them to turn their kickpunching trade into a more lucrative venture.

Awaiting our heroes just a short ride south is the solution to all of Ruben’s problems: Tijuana! No, they’re not drug muling or trafficking prostitutes (though there’s good money in both). They’re fighting. Lee has left the disgrace of his shootfighting ban behind him in Hong Kong to start a full-contact fighting circuit to compete directly with Tijuana’s full-contact strip clubs and full-contact donkey shows. After sending one of his scouts to a karate competition to entice Nick and Ruben with a promotional VHS tape (à la Total Gym Pro) they agree to participate.


While the underworld of caged fighters, screaming crowds, and dirty money is exciting at first, the glossy veneer is scrubbed away as the rules are changed and the stakes are raised. The resulting turmoil will challenge their friendship, their skills, and their ability to sweat profusely before even fighting. Lee hasn’t brought Ruben and Nick aboard just to fill out a fighting roster, he’s specifically chosen them to lure Shingo back into the ring so he can take his vengeance.

While Shingo is integral to the plot and is undoubtedly the central character tying the Lee and Ruben arcs together, Bolo Yeung's involvement is classic bait-and-switch and he's by no means the star. Despite being the best actor, even Zabka lacks the necessary screen-time to claim that title. Instead, the overstuffed action cast and unfocused screenplay pretty much require that Shootfighter functions as an ensemble work -- sort of like a b-grade, early 90s American martial-arts version of The Expendables.


The cast of familiar faces is substantial. Kenn Scott (Showdown) makes an all-too-brief cameo as a reluctant fighter, Hakim Alston (Bloodmoon) is featured prominently as the reigning Tijuana shootfighting champ, and John Barrett (American Kickboxer 1) plays a downtrodden and desperate fighter named Mongoose. Perhaps best of all, Lightning from Big Trouble in Little China (James Pax) shows up as Lee’s chainsmoking errand boy, Teng. Unfortunately, the filmmakers fail to maximize the returns on this great collection of talent.

Gory death blows aside -- and there are several good ones -- the action in the film is nothing spectacular. Part of it is due to the timid choreography from Pat E. Johnson (the Karate Kid and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series, respectively) and Brandon Pender (sword fight choreography on The Ice Pirates … not kidding). Their attempts to incorporate weapons and contrast styles feel arbitrary and look fairly clumsy. As an example, the guy who supposedly does “snake” style simply gyrates a lot and licks a boa constrictor before his match starts. Instead of a genuine snake fist practitioner, he comes across as a creepier, bestial version of Jake Roberts. Goofy caricatures aren’t the biggest issue here, though.

The main culprit is the way Allen shoots the action. Setting the majority of the fights in a cage presents some unique challenges, which Allen literally rams straight through more often than not. So while shots taken from inside or above the cage are clear, others are interrupted by a blurry chain-linked fence in the foreground. Even more distracting: Allen and his editor are incapable of getting through a fight without a minimum of six cutaways to the screaming crowd. This really hindered the flow of action and just about every fight felt heavily padded as a result.


On the good side, Shootfighter does have a few choice moments of cutting loose. One scene finds Bolo Yeung practicing Tai Chi while inexplicably surrounded by a gaggle of geese. Zabka freaks out on a mugger who ruins his burrito meal after pulling a knife. Not to be outdone, Bolo and Bernardo play a quick game of H-O-R-S-E with an eight year-old kid and get thoroughly schooled. And in a breathtaking fit of rage, Martin Kove chops the top off a pineapple with a samurai sword.

VERDICT:
Due to equal parts Billy Zabka nostalgia and Bolo Yeung fandom, Shootfighter has gone through a bit of a renaissance in enthusiasm over the past few years. While it’s not a terrible film, the final product doesn’t fit the hype and this is unfortunately not the definitive Bolo Yeung film. I usually grimace when I see more than one screenwriter listed and my worst fears were realized: just about everyone is underdeveloped and the dialogue is more “atrocious and I don’t want to hear it again” than “atrocious and a lot of fun to mimic repeatedly among friends.” The fights themselves are passable but gimmicky and could have looked better with a steadier hand directing it all. Still, if you like your tournament fighters with grimy gobs of gore, Shootfighter fits the bill.

AVAILABILITY:
Your best bet is a used VHS on Amazon or EBay. Or *cough cough* YouTube *cough cough*.

4 / 7

3.01.2011

Fighting Spirit (1992)

PLOT: After his sister is injured during an attempted gang rape, a young kickboxer can’t afford the medical bills so is forced into underground street fights by a sleazy crime boss. As the danger reaches a fever pitch, the only prescription is his best friend, David.

Director: John Lloyd
Writer: Rod Davis
Cast: Loren Avedon, Sean P. Donahue, Greg Douglass, Ned Hourani, Jerry Beyer, Michelle Locke, Mike Monty, Nick Nicholson

PLOT THICKENER:
You might be saying “hey Karl Brezdin, why the fuck are you calling this post Fighting Spirit when the cover art says King of the Kickboxers 2 and oh by the way, I got here by searching for Fighting Spirit anime torrents so where’s episode 7 ‘The Destructive Force of 1 cm?’” Well, hypothetical run-on question, allow me to explain.

Between 1986 and 1990, the original No Retreat, No Surrender and its two proper sequels were released. In Europe and other regions of the world, these films formed the Karate Tiger franchise (1-3.) Around 1991, King of the Kickboxers was released but was billed as Karate Tiger 4 in Europe and some other regions of the world. Then in 1992, American Shaolin was released as American Shaolin in America, but Karate Tiger 5 in Europe and elsewhere, but also as American Shaolin: King of the Kickboxers II on VHS by Academy Home Entertainment. That same year, Fighting Spirit was released under its original title in most places but eventually became King of the Kickboxers 2 when it was released on DVD in the United States. Pretty straightforward.


Fighting Spirit is the story of Billy (Donahue), a nice guy who made bad career choices and finds himself trying to make ends meet as an amateur kickboxer. While training with his coach (Nick Nicholson in a brief but hilarious cameo) he forgets to pick up his sister, Judith (Locke), following her shift at a local bar. When he finally arrives, she’s unconscious and about to be raped by a group of thugs led by Tony (Douglass), a gun dealer with an opinion of women equally as terrible as his terrible haircut. After Billy sends the thugs scurrying, a stranger appears out of nowhere and offers them a ride to the hospital. Unbeknownst to Billy, the stranger is Tony’s older brother, Russell (Hourani.) He watched the events unfold and has decided that Billy is worthy of a small investment.

After Judith’s insanely funky trip to the hospital -- director John Lloyd pairs the rush to the operating room with an orchestral disco beat -- Billy finds out that she needs an expensive surgery to save her eyesight, but he doesn’t have the funds to cover the procedure. Instead of accepting an offer of help from David (Avedon), his kickboxing friend and businessman, Billy takes money from the weird dude he just met an hour ago.


Unfortunately, there are strings attached. Billy quickly finds himself sucked into a filthy underworld where fighters compete in abandoned warehouses while rich assholes place bets and a funky wah-wah guitar track plays. Seeing unpolished potential, Russell pairs him with a fighting trainer named Murphy (Beyer) to hone his skills. While Murphy becomes something of a mentor to Billy, David is suspicious of the arrangement from the jump and encourages his friend to walk away and allow him to pay off the debt owed to Russell. Unfortunately, Billy’s pride won’t allow it.

Despite some initial success, Billy is still consumed by vengeance and begins to track down the people responsible for his sister’s attack. This lack of focus leads to a defeat and the relationship with Russell quickly turns sour. No slouch on the fighting front, David is forced to seek out Murphy for help to salvage what little remains in a desperate situation. The film’s villains do their part to make sure that no one goes unscathed. Russell is pure, hairy-chested sleaze and the glee with which Tony performs violence borders on childlike. No villain-filler here though, because both actors can fight reasonably well. (Though neither can act.)


The action in this film is bonkers and the stunt team deserves a lot of credit for killing themselves to make Avedon and Donahue look great. Since their respective filmographies are so limited, I can’t say much about action directors Tao Chang and Ping-Po Chin, but almost every scene is painted with generous helpings of blood, sweat, and dust. Most of the decisive blows are given tight, slow-motion close-ups and props are used frequently and liberally.

Among several high-quality fight sequences, the standout scene for me was a pool hall brawl. Billy and David roll into the local billiards spot looking for one of the dickheads responsible for Judith’s injuries, and all hell breaks loose. The performers lay absolute waste to the set by smashing windows, liquor bottles, shelves, and every breakaway piece of furniture in sight. Avedon also incorporates some comedic touches by alternating between running his hands through his hair, standing idly with his hands in his pockets, and using props like pool cues, racks, and balls to ward off enemies. Is there an out-of-place disco beat blaring over this? Yes, there is a disco beat.

To say nothing of the awful dubbing, the terrible soundtrack very nearly derails the entire film. The music and onscreen action frequently form wild mismatches in tone, from the dramatic disco-hospital combo to the energizing disco-fight scenes and the requisite disco-training montage scene. I doubt composer Larry Strong wrote and performed these songs specifically for this film; it seems more likely that he got an arbitrary credit when John Lloyd mined a box of studio music marked “BEST IF USED BY 1982.”


The film’s gritty feel is further underscored by some visceral tones and the brutality of some of the kills. Some people get thrown from rooftops, one gets tortured in a dingy basement, others get bloody strangulation, and Avedon scores an all too-rare Martial-Artist Vomit Scene when identifying a body at the morgue. There’s even a scene where a character has each arm tied to the rear bumpers of two different cars and is dragged at high-speed before splatting face-first into a stationary car. Sleazy kills, rape as a plot point, and low production values? Cirio-sense tingling...

While no filming location is listed on the film’s IMDb page, it’s safe to assume that based on the heinous music and risky stunts that this was filmed in the Philippines. The other critical indicators include cameos from Filipino action veterans Nick Nicholson, and Mike Monty as an obnoxious drunk. While Fighting Spirit was the last of four films directed by John Lloyd, his directorial style is timeless: keep the plot loose, the violence frequent, and everything in between as unintentionally hilarious as possible.


While most of the film’s accidental comedy comes from poor dubbing and the odd music selections, Michelle Locke’s performance as the vision-impaired Judith is gut-busting. Is it ever permissible to laugh at blind people in films? Usually no, because a good script and a well-trained actor won’t give you reasons to do so. Shintaro Katsu of Zaitoichi fame or Morgan Freeman in Unleashed weren’t flailing their arms in pools or tripping over dead bodies. These are mishaps that deserve a hearty mocking even if the character can see. So it’s OK to cackle at a first-time actress trying to pretend to be blind. If you laugh at a blind person crossing a street with the assistance of a seeing-eye dog, you’re a fucking degenerate.

VERDICT:
If enough people stumble across it, Fighting Spirit has the potential to become something of a cult classic in martial-arts film circles. It must be said that for every element the film gets right -- the fight scenes and sleazy villains among them -- there are three or four other things that go dreadfully wrong (the music, the script, dubbing, set lighting, etc.) The result doesn’t make for a poor viewing experience though. On the contrary, the film’s underlying charm comes directly from its grit, grime, and random technical warts. There’s no shortage of crazy Filipino action movies out there, but for those who likes their sleaze-and-cheese with an extra helping of chopsocky, this one is worth every cent of your viewing dollar.

AVAILABILITY:
Amazon or EBay.

5.5 / 7

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