5.24.2011

American Kickboxer 2 (1993)

PLOT: Two kickfighting meatheads reluctantly team up to rescue the kidnapped daughter of a mutual former squeeze. Can they put aside their bitter jealousy to work towards a common goal or will they settle their differences during a rainy and completely unnecessary mud wrestling match?

Director: Jeno Hodi
Writers: Jeno Hodi, Paul Wolansky, Greg Lewis (additional dialogue), Dan Mirvish (additional dialogue)
Cast: Evan Lurie, Dale Cook, Ted Markland, Kathy Shower, David Graf, Nick Nicholson, Ned Hourani

PLOT THICKENER:
The first time I rented Troll 2, I remember being pissed that it had nothing to do with its predecessor. Instead of a poorly made fantasy film with bad special effects and terrible acting, I watched a poorly made horror film with no special effects and terrible acting. The “sequel in name only” is not endemic of any one genre but seems to crop up a lot with action films. More often than not, it’s a sleazy viewer grab for what is usually an inferior film. In rare cases -- exemplified recently by Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans -- you get two unique and eminently watchable (though unrelated) movies. Add 1993’s American Kickboxer 2 to that list, right above the Bad Lieutenant entries. Not because it’s more unique or more watchable, but because it begins with the letter A and you keep all your list alphabetized as a result of your obsessive-compulsive disorder.

The film begins with a charming depiction of poolside domestic bliss. Lillian (Shower) is a curvaceous blond businesswoman married to Howard (Graf), a swell guy not even close to being in her league. Not only is Howard lucky enough to be her husband and stepfather to her daughter, Susie, but he’s also involved in a lucrative business her deceased father left to her and her uncle. As the adults head inside to make smoothies and Susie hops in for a dip, nothing could be more perfect.


What soon follows is one of the more amazing kidnapping sequences you’ll see. As her parents are in the kitchen playing hanky-panky to the loud whir of a blender, Susie is getting kidnapped from the pool by a man suspended from a helicopter hovering overhead. (Duh, he shot the security team with poisonous darts first). You would think that on the decibel scale, a helicopter in your fucking backyard would trump a kitchen appliance. Not so in the universe of American Kickboxer 2. Howard and Lillian stop dry humping in time to see their daughter airlifted away, and the kidnapper places a phone call to their home line during the getaway. Played by character actor veteran and skullet enthusiast Ted Markland, the dastardly Xavier is holding their daughter for a $2 million ransom and promises to kill her if they involve the authorities.

Despite the fact that her husband is warm, loving, and has a mind for business, it’s important to remember that he’s also the pudgy guy who played Eugene Tackleberry in the long-running Police Academy franchise. Instead of relying on him to hunt down the kidnappers, Lillian recruits more appropriate people to handle the matter: two dudes she used to bang.


Ex-lay number one is hard-nosed cop Mike Clark, played by five-time world champion … uh, something ... Dale “Apollo” Cook. The violence he sees in his occupation has unfortunately carried over into his personal life and Lillian left him due to his occasionally abusive nature. He’s high-strung, talks fast, and goes nowhere without a toothpick in his mouth. The second blast from the past is David, a motorcycle enthusiast and martial arts instructor. Played by PM Entertainment stalwart Evan Lurie, David is the yin to Mike’s yang: placid, laid-back, and very pensive. David seems more concerned with the appearance of his hair and chasing girls than the assignment, but his manner actually works well as a counterpoint to Cook’s over-the-top and tightly-wound portrayal of Mike.

After brawling in the parking lot of a McDonald’s and pretending to be landscapers at Lillian’s house, the odd couple begins to gather clues and follow leads. The owner of a helicopter rental outfit (played by Filipino DTV favorite Nick Nicholson) points them in the direction of a mysterious man with a shark tattoo. That clue leads them to a bar, which leads them to a massage parlor, which leads them to a warehouse, and you’ve seen this plot before and you get the picture.


Considering the budget, era, and intended home video audience, it can’t be terribly surprising that the fight scenes in the film are stilted in rhythm and short on creativity, but Hodi attempts to remedy these flaws by substituting frequency for quality. This is a bit unfortunate, because as evidenced by his work in the Hong Kong production of Deadend Besiegers, Dale Cook can definitely bring the goods with the right creative vision in place. While Ned Hourani’s henchman character isn’t a huge part of the story, his skills -- on fuller display in Fighting Spirit -- could have been utilized to better effect as well. Lurie has a pretty entertaining fight in a packed jail cell while handcuffed that seamlessly integrates light comedy and prison-rape phobia. He and Cook have a short but decent scrap in the mud during some heavy rain that looks pretty good visually but makes for a better brawl than a stand-up martial arts contest. The warehouse action and climax are all engaging for the zany Filipino fun factor of it all. But while the hand-to-hand action is frequent, so are the poor choices in viewing angles and editing and it’s unfortunate the efforts of the on-screen talent was betrayed by those on the production end. If you have a hankering for technically solid fights, American Kickboxer 2 won’t satisfy that hunger. Watch Drunken Master II or eat a banana instead.


One of the elements that can help to push a chopsocky film into upper-echelon cheesy-good territory is memorable dialogue. I don’t know if it was a consequence of having so many scribes involved -- two of which were dedicated solely to dialogue -- but there were no more than a handful of good lines (the “best” of which, IMO: “Your ass is grass, and we’re the lawnmowers.”) The script relies instead on the argumentative dynamic between the leads and the silly scenarios in which they find themselves: rapey holding cells, shady massage parlors, and the many brawls in mud, at bars, and on beaches.


VERDICT:
As far as action sequels which have no relationship whatsoever to their predecessors, American Kickboxer 2 is a pretty good kick to the pills. Those familiar with Filipino action films from the late 1980s to early 1990s will find a lot to chew on between the familiar faces and genre trappings. I haven’t gone very far down the roads of Cook Street or Lurie Boulevard, but I give the filmmakers credit for giving each performer an actual character to play, even if they were both douchey in their own special ways. Their frequent head-butting and contrast in characterization gives the film an engaging quality throughout its tidy 93-minute runtime.

AVAILABILITY:
Readily available on Netflix, Amazon, EBay.

5 / 7

5.13.2011

Rage (1995)

PLOT: A corrupt defense contractor is injecting undocumented Hispanic migrant workers with chemicals to create a new breed of superhuman soldier. As they expand their pool of test subjects, an innocent schoolteacher is caught up in their scheme. No, this is not a movie about Monsanto.

Director: Joseph Merhi
Writers: Joseph John Barmettler, Jacobsen Hart
Cast: Gary Daniels, Kenneth Tigar, Tim Colceri, David Powledge, Jilliam McWhirter, Fiona Hutchison



PLOT THICKENER:
Action movies often make heroes out of normal, unlikely people. In 1974’s Death Wish, a passive architect might seem an unlikely candidate to transform into a grizzled vigilante tearing a path of urban vengeance … if you ignore the fact that his wife gets raped by dope fiends and he’s played by Charles Bronson. In 1995’s Rage, second-grade schoolteacher Alex Gainer doesn’t exactly scream “chronic traffic law violator and prime suspect in multiple homicides” but he’s played by Gary Daniels and this movie was produced by PM Entertainment.

The story is set in motion by Westech, a defense contractor dabbling in super serums designed to boost performance in soldiers. Their experiments using migrant workers have repeatedly failed after the test subjects died following injections. The cohort supplying the corporation’s thugs with said immigrants has bitten the hand that feeds him and during his mad dash, decides that a mid-day carjacking is the path to freedom. Who’s driving the car? Family man and martial artist, Alex Gainer.


The local authorities, led by a dirty cop working for Westech named Kelly (Powledge), pull over the vehicle. They beat Gainer and his captor mercilessly and Kelly makes the executive decision that because Gainer has a British accent, he’s not all that much different than an illegal immigrant and his disappearance won’t be noticed. Apparently, the cronies at Westech agree because before long, Gainer is on a gurney being wheeled into the laboratory for a procedure.

It doesn’t take long for Gainer to flip the switch from heartwarming to heartpunching. After being shot full of drugs and straitjacketed, he lashes out Hulk-style at the unethical medical staff and the Westech facility quickly becomes a fiery goulash of bullets, bodies, and broken glass. The portly Kelly and resident federal lapdog Parrish (Colceri) eventually manage to subdue him (i.e. Taser to the balls) and have him transported to a meet-up spot for a hand-off with more Westech cronies. That goes swimmingly as Gainer fights off the thugs again and flees into the barren plains under the cover of night.


Thoroughly confused and hopped up on super serum, Gainer continues to tear a very public path of destruction through the crooked ranks trying to pursue him. As the 24/7 news media grabs hold of this story of the rampaging murderer in a sports coat and khakis, Gainer’s best hope to clear his name is a disgraced broadcast journalist named Harry Johannsen (Tigar). Despite the risks to his already tarnished reputation, he finds the entire affair a bit suspicious considering Gainer’s spotless background and Westech’s filthy track record.

Some films are better described in terms of the overall action than the fight choreography. Despite the proficiency of its lead as a fighter, Rage is one of those films. Experienced fight choreographer Art Camacho and prolific stunt coordinator Spiro Razatos bring a polished and kinetic feel to the film’s action pieces, small and large-scale alike.

What the stunt-oriented scenes might lack in imagination, they more than make up for in over-the-top energy and a real sense of danger. An early chase with Gainer driving a gasoline tanker on the freeway is peppered with liberal amounts of overturned vehicles and high-speed explosions. No less than three smashed roadblocks and one wrecked fruit stand later, our fearless hero is heading straight into a school bus commandeered by one of the film’s resident dickbags. Instead of swerving to avoid a crash, Gainer rigs the tanker to accelerate and then climbs to the roof where he sails through the air and lands harmlessly as the vehicles collide behind him in a fiery trucksplosion. Silly? Yes. Unbelievable, sure, but I’d argue there’s something oddly coalescent about Gainer singing “The Wheels on the Bus” with his daughter one day, and driving head-on into that bus only several hours later.


Unfortunately, the film lacks a serious physical rival for Daniels’s character, but Camacho still finds other ways to make the fight choreography visually appealing. He employs a “one-man-army” approach and does a fine job of using movement to show the speed and ease with which Daniels disarms and dispatches his enemies. The members of Camacho’s stunt team throw themselves around the various sets like rag dolls to make the hero look convincing and there’s more mindless glass-shattering than a Japanese indie deathmatch.

There’s no singular fight scene that’s outstanding in terms of technique and flow, but there’s definitely one which rises above the rest in terms of pure insanity. During his race to elude the authorities, Gainer breaks into a random home and devours a combination of tomato juice, milk, and fried chicken, all while seated on the kitchen floor. (Gainer vomits up this food later on... way to eat a balanced meal, Gainer!) The owner of said home is not at work or out running errands, but rather in his bedroom being disciplined by a towering female dominatrix while Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries blares over their merrymaking. The leather-clad master and slave eventually come downstairs to find this stranger in the house and a fight breaks out. Furniture is destroyed. Glass is broken. A dominatrix is punched in the face.


From the writing team that brought us Time Barbarians and the Anna Nicole Smith actioner Skyscraper, no one should expect a paranoid man vs. state classic or crackling back-and-forth dialogue. The screenplay is more or less written to transport Alex Gainer from one insane action set-piece to the next. The plot is underdcooked and I’m not a huge fan of the shadowy corporate enemy in a film like this unless there’s a compelling figurehead involved. As head villainfiller Parrish, Tim Colceri is actually quite good dramatically (his claim to fame was getting hired to play Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Full Metal Jacket before being replaced with R. Lee Ermey) but he doesn’t have the fighting skills to make the final confrontation with Gainer as interesting as it could have been. As the burgeoning citizen advocate and journalist Harry Johannsen, Kenneth Tigar is perfectly serviceable as the film’s resident character actor who tries to give this silly story a touch of earnestness.


Miscasting is an issue endemic to the action b-movie genre, so it's nice to see Gary Daniels as the story’s wholesome schoolteacher hero. He of blue eyes and light hair, Daniels has boyish looks and an equally boyish tone and cadence in his line delivery. He looks like a legitimately nice guy and that’s a tough hurdle to overcome when casting him as a grizzled street tough, but his role here is a more natural fit that allows Daniels’s kindness to shine through. You see him teaching students about monkeys, greeting his family after a long day at work, and playfully botching the lyrics to “The Wheels on the Bus” while singing with his daughter. These were nice memories to have while watching Daniels leap from the top of a mall merry go-round to tackle an assailant before beating him to death.

VERDICT:
Insane stunts. More broken glass windows than the L.A. riots and WTO protests combined. And Gary Daniels playing a schoolteacher. I’m not quite ready to go out on that limb and say it’s his best ever, but it’s a fun-as-hell action movie with some absurdly over-the-top set-pieces. Aside from some occasionally clunky editing, Rage is one of PM Entertainment’s most polished efforts. Highly recommended for both Daniels die-hards and action aficionados in general.

AVAILABILITY:
Freely available via Netflix, Amazon, EBay.

5.5 / 7

5.05.2011

Tiger Claws (1992)

PLOT: A trail of murder victims with distinct scratch marks left on their faces has New York City on edge. Two cops reluctantly team up to search for the elusive killer, who is probably a girl with a great manicure. Their reasoning? Only chicks and velociraptors would scratch during a fight and one of those suspects is innocent by reason of extinction.

Director: Kelly Makin
Writer: J. Stephen Maunder
Cast: Jalal Merhi, Cynthia Rothrock, Bolo Yeung, Nick Dibley, Bill Pickells, Robert Nolan, Kedar Brown, Michael Bernardo

PLOT THICKENER:
Training one’s body to be a killing machine can be a tiresome process, both physically and mentally. One of the better cinematic depictions of this concept is in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, where the fragile Leonard Lawrence goes off the rails after verbal abuse and hazing during military training. Not to be outdone by some lame-o 1970s Vietnam war classic, Canadian filmmaker Kelly Makin -- perhaps best known for the Kids in the Hall feature-length film -- brought the martial arts thriller Tiger Claws into the fold in 1992. This story about the consequences of extreme training and the failure to keep one’s nails clipped raises many important questions, specifically: why did Cynthia Rothrock do this movie?

The thankless hours of spending her shifts dressed like a hooker to catch johns isn’t cutting it for Linda Masterson (Rothrock). She wants serious police work. Fortune smiles upon her as a series of victims pile up with no visible trauma aside from peculiar claw marks left on their faces. Since the stiffs were all martial-artists and they died from internal injuries, Masterson suspects a highly-trained fighter. Despite the solid hunch, her department chief wants to pair her with someone to work on the case, dubbed internally as the “Death Dealer” murders.


While he’s hostile to working with a partner, vice cop Tarek Richards (Merhi) doesn’t have a choice. Right after demanding a $25,000 increase in his undercover budget, he botches a sting operation and get suspended. This, combined with his ponytail, houseboat, and his wife leaving him, apparently makes him some sort of loose cannon. (Most would conclude he’s just a fuck-up). After looking at Masterson’s evidence, Richards believes the killer is using a rare version of Tiger style kung-fu.

Following some field research -- i.e. walking through Chinatown and going to a karate tournament -- Richards thinks he has a lead, but he’ll have to go undercover in order to chase it. This basically means that Cynthia Rothrock sits in a van doing surveillance while Jalal Merhi gets to have all the fun training in Tiger style. He’s done this once before, but this variation is so intense it can drive a man mad and it’s the real reason why his wife left him... not his ponytail. During his tenure, he befriends some trainees and meets a harmless interior painter named Chong, played by Bolo Yeung. Hmm, that’s weird. Why does the harmless 260-pound interior painter have a giant shrine with all these stolen martial arts weapons?


I’m not sure to what degree they should be held accountable for the way the fight scenes are shot, but as tandem fight choreographers, Steve Lucescu and Jalal Merhi do little to sway me with how they’re staged. The climactic fight involving the male principals lacks drama and is made watchable only by Bolo’s facial expressions and the fact that they crush more cardboard boxes than a trash compactor. Much of the combat is slow to develop and hurt by a lot of over-the-shoulder, first-person perspective shots. Since this was Makin’s first and only foray into the action genre, one could make the case that his team was favoring “feel” over “look” with this style of shooting, but they fail to achieve either effect.

There is some gold swimming in the garbage though. All of Chong’s kill scenes have decent build and execution, and the victims do a good job of selling Yeung’s strikes. Cynthia Rothrock creatively uses rope and a kayak paddle as weapons, and she has two fights with Yeung toward the back-end of the film which are paced a few beats quicker and incorporate their differences in size and speed. Most of the “Tiger” training portions are visually interesting and well-shot, and Bolo is made to look positively bad-ass in scenes where he displays his bastardized version of the training. One sequence has him dunking his hands in scalding water before splashing it on his face and drinking it, while another finds him making kung-fruit salad by squeezing apples to a pulpy mess.


In the area of performances, there’s not much to love. As Masterson, Rothrock is decent but her role is diminished, and Bolo is menacing as Chong but the character is underdeveloped. The best part of the movie is any scene involving real-life Canadian master Bill Pickells. I briefly participated in Tang Soo Do as a youngster in the early 1990s, and was thus exposed to a handful of martial-arts demos where middle-aged white guys with mullets and wonky facial hair would scream while breaking boards or waving swords. The insanely goofy Bill Pickells Karate Show featured in Tiger Claws brought all of those memories back. Even better is that Pickells plays an egotistical prick who berates his production staff and complains that the set’s potted plants make him look short. We’ve covered several films with the martial-artist-as-serial-killer plot device and each of the antagonists were memorable for different reasons. As a counterpoint to that, Pickells earns the distinction of being the most memorable victim -- he’s hilarious in short minutes.


Despite attempts to paint his character as such, Merhi isn't adept at playing the dark, rough, and brooding type. I appreciate that screenwriter J. Stephen Maunder positioned the Tiger training as emotionally taxing and physically extreme; the case of a practitioner snapping and killing as a result of the grueling training is believable. The dialogue which describes the training process is another story, though. The total lack of emotive qualities in Merhi’s line delivery really makes him an unideal fit to play a “man on the edge.” A better actor like John Barrett or Jeff Wincott could probably pull this off more convincingly, but whether he’s striking down “NO SWIMMING” signs at the beach, or wearing his hair down and looking like a haggard version of Balki Bartokomous, Merhi isn’t that actor. Yes, I’m critiquing the dramatic qualities of a Jalal Merhi performance. Also, fire is hot.

This was the first film released under Merhi’s Film One Productions banner, and it’s one of their better efforts. We often poke fun at Merhi around these parts but it’s all in good fun. He built a 15-year career on Torontoyork City martial arts movies teeming with bigger-name talent like Rothrock, Billy Blanks, and Loren Avedon, and for that longevity, he should be commended. That he seems to consistently elevate his own parts over those of his costars has always seemed curious to me, though. Maybe he’s just a really persuasive guy.


VERDICT:
I first caught this film as part of TNT’s action-oriented “Nitro” programming over a decade ago and at the time, I regarded it as nothing more than a barely-average fight film. The recent rewatch has done little to change my opinion but I did find some likable elements that 14 year-old Karl might've overlooked. The film is nicely paced and rarely drags. Bolo is convincing as the story’s monster and while not at the level of Chong Li in Bloodsport, he’s used more effectively here than in bit parts for other American films. I found Rothrock was underutilized but she did have some decent fight scenes and gets to show off her burgeoning fashionista side. Despite the occasional bright spots, the film is crippled by some awful dialogue and acting, and poorly-composed fight scenes. That said, it launched two sequels and is one of the better Jalal Merhi action vehicles ... if you’re into that sort of thing. If you are, don’t tell anyone.

AVAILABILITY:
VHS copies can be purchased on Amazon or EBay.

4 / 7

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