Operation Golden Phoenix (1994)

PLOT: A security expert transporting a rare medallion is violently betrayed by his partner and set up to take the fall for the theft of this and other Middle Eastern treasures. Looks pretty dire, but it’s nothing that a clever disguise of a hat and moustache can’t fix.

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.

3 / 7


L.A. Streetfighters (1985)

PLOT: Rival teenage gangs of martial arts street toughs rumble over territory and bragging rights. When one gang tries to go legitimate as a private security team, and one gang member starts dating the sister of a rival gang member, and someone steals drug money, and another guy comes from a broken home, things get really convoluted. And awesome.

Director: Woo-sang Park
Writer: Ji-Woon Hong, Jaime Mendoza-Nava
Cast: Jun Chong, Phillip Rhee, James Lew, Bill Wallace, Loren Avedon

Bear Republic Brewery’s Racer 5 might be my favorite IPA of all time. You sudsy connoisseurs are probably chuckling at my naivety on the subject, but I had it for the first time recently and gave it immediate and favorable judgement. Taste is like that, so is smell: in analyzing the respective properties, you usually know immediately whether you like something or not. Movies are more slippery. The 1985 Woo-sang Park film L.A. Streetfighters is one that often popped up when researching the filmographies of Loren Avedon, James Lew, and Phillip Rhee. Digging deeper into some random reviews, I found a lot of “so bad it’s good!” reactions and added it to my Netflix queue. I watched it. I probably shrugged. I moved on.

It was added as a “midnight movie” selection to last year’s edition of the New York Asian Film Festival and due to time restrictions, I failed to attend. With fresh eyes, I just revisited the film last week and have concluded this: in terms of cinematic gut reactions, 2009 Karl Brezdin’s guts don’t know shit. This movie is incredible.

Phillip Rhee stars as Tony, a charismatic and likeable high school student. The only problem? He’s the new guy in town and doesn’t look quite tough enough to not be fucked with. Part of it is his affable demeanor but most of it is that he wears the same gray argyle sweater to school every day. (Unless it’s a Members Only jacket, wearing the same clothes on consecutive days is not a cool thing to do.) As a result, the school’s bully, Chan (Lew) and his gang of thugs target Tony for a beatdown, unless he can pay the fee: five dollars. Luckily, the rebellious Young (Chong) sticks up for Tony and challenges Chan to a duel under the cover of night. While his ample mustache might suggest he stayed back a few years, Young is a tough customer and has the leather jacket, black fingerless gloves, and occasional flowy scarf to prove it.

The bo staff is the weapon of choice for the rumble between Chan and Young, and it’s a legitimately well-choreographed fight scene that puts over Young’s skills very effectively. He dominates the contest and Chan’s gang goes scurrying. A casual observer to the proceedings notices that Young is a formidable physical specimen capable of quickly disarming his opponent and immediately offers him a wad of cash to work as private security. We then get the first of several WTF moments, as Young grips the cash in hand, turns his head toward the camera, and begins laughing maniacally before it abruptly cuts to the next scene. Incredible.

Like Chan, Young has a gang of super-tough friends, and also like Chan, he comes from a single-parent household. During a rotating cascade of poorly-lit, ineptly performed, and terribly dubbed scenes of melodrama, Young laments his place in America and his mother’s rampant alcoholism. Will she ever accept him or be a real mother to him? The dilemma frustrates him to no end and he constantly vents to Tony, but his friend seems to think that he should simply concentrate on school, the one thing he can control. Like Bill Gates before him, Young is all “fuck school, I gots to get PAID” and continues to bust heads during the gang’s adventures in private security and random parking garage rumbles.

As Young and friends rush fist-first into the alluring world of working the door at Mexican restaurants and dance clubs, Tony catches the eye of the adoring Lily (King) and they begin to date. Despite their innocent puppy love, this is a highly combustible situation because Lily is Chan’s sister. She attempts to explain away her brother’s dickheaded behavior as the result of their mother abandoning the family. The honesty between them and their mutual love for ice cream only fortifies their romantic bonds, and it seems as if Young is growing resentful. As the gang’s caretaker who took Tony in as a friend, it troubles him to see his friend happy with the sister of his arch-rival. This manifests itself in an awkward scene where Young drives around looking for hookers for Tony, and mistakes non-hookers for actual hookers as Tony shifts nervously in his seat all the while.

There are so many more scenes just like this, none of which can be adequately described in the written word as a means of capturing the same random and off-beat spirit that an actual viewing could. By the time Young steals a drug dealer’s money and the gang is stalked by Bill “Superfoot” Wallace and a samurai-hitman fights a gang member in what looks like an expressionistic art gallery, your head will be spinning with the pure fun of it all. Though, for all the goofiness and technical gaffes, the ending to this movie is bleak as all-fuck which made me love it all that much more.

The action overall is quite good when you can actually see what’s transpiring. While the terrible attention to lighting hurts at times, the choreography is mostly crisp, the movement is framed well, and the editing isn’t overdone. More than the technical components though, the roster of fighters helps these scenes succeed. Rhee, Chong, and Lew are all legitimate taekwondo masters and the inclusion of karate and kickboxing champion Bill Wallace was a cool way to bridge the 1970s and early 80s output of the Chuck Norris era, and the burgeoning talent and work of the 1980s Los Angeles taekwondo scene. I didn’t spot him fighting, but Loren Avedon -- a TKD practitioner -- makes a brief appearance as one of Lew’s buddies. Mark Hicks, who cries over a birthday cake here, has a long history of Hollywood stunt work, just appeared in the action blockbuster Fast Five, and achieved unfortunate Internet fame as Afro Ninja. Also deserving special mention is Danny Gibson, who appears as the leader of the Spikes gang and has one of the most unique looks in a film loaded with questionable fashion sense. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen a mustachioed man in a belly shirt yelling “YOU'RE DEAD MEAT MOTHERFUCKER! DON'T FUCK WITH... THE SPIKES!”

The terrible lighting. The dubbed dialogue. The fingerless black leather gloves. The VHS artwork that looks like it belongs on the cover of some obscure side-scrolling Data East beat-em-up for the NES. You get all of this and more in the highly enjoyable gang violence romp that is L.A. Streetfighters. While it will never win points on polish or artistic achievement, the film is legitimately historic for other reasons. It’s a cinematic flashpoint for some of the biggest figures in the American martial arts b-movie scene. Phillip Rhee went on to head up the infamous Best of the Best franchise. James Lew would become one of the most prolific stunt performers in Hollywood. Loren Avedon played prominent heroes and villains for the next 20 years. While Chong never achieved the same longevity cinematically, this is his most consistently entertaining piece of work and a legit midnight movie gem. Highly recommended.

Amazon, EBay, YouTube. Currently in Save Hell on Netflix.

6.5 / 7


Heatseeker (1995)

PLOT: A human kickboxing champion is forced to participate in a cyborg fighting tournament when his girlfriend and trainer are kidnapped by the evil corporation organizing the event. That is to say, his girlfriend and trainer are the same person. Why is that weird? Weren't Little Mac and Doc like ... together?

Director: Albert Pyun
Writers: Albert Pyun, Christopher Borkgen
Cast: Keith Cooke, Gary Daniels, Thom Matthews, Tina Cote, Norbert Weisser, Tim Thomerson

It’s been nearly a year of Western martial arts b-movie reviews on Fist of B-List, and we’ve somehow overlooked the work of Albert Pyun entirely. I feel like I should have my niche film genre Internet criticism card revoked. Thankfully, no such identification exists so I’ll try to make up for my sins by covering his 1995 movie Heatseeker. This is one of several Pyun-helmed cyborg kickboxer movies set in the future, which should probably make him the undisputed king of “spin-kicks-and-science” films. So is Heatseeker a classic of the sub-genre that I completely made up?

In the year 2019, Chance O’Brien (Cooke) is the most dominant kickboxer in the sport. After vanquishing an opponent named Xao (played by Gary Daniels), and a more recent challenger during a match in Rome, O’Brien is on top of the world. His girlfriend and trainer Jo (Cote) agrees to marry him and their future appears to be nothing but sunshine and roses with some occasional spin kicks and elbows to the face.

However, during a post-match press conference, Jo and Chance are confronted by Mr. Tung, the douchey director of marketing for the Sianon Corporation. Behind the scenes, Sianon has rebuilt Xao as a cybernetically enhanced kickboxing machine and Tung believes that the best way to market the company’s technology to the masses is to hold a fighting tournament. By putting Xao up against other cyborgs from various corporations in a Pepsi Challenge of sorts, Sianon will be positioned to dominate the market for … I don’t know what. Without the participation of the biggest kickboxing draw on the planet, their contest won’t be nearly as successful. Tung does what he can to goad Chance into competing, but the champ thinks that fighting robots is a waste of time... i.e. his girlfriend thinks it’s a waste of time.

So what do the Sianon cretins do? They kidnap the girlfriend to give Chance an incentive. Rather than take the opportunity to play the field, he gives chase to New Manila, where the tournament is being held. New Manila is just like Old Manila, but with relaxed public nudity laws. Seriously, Cooke shows so much bare ass in this stretch of the film, you’d assume it was contractual. He eventually finds clothes, goes to tournament orientation, and makes friends with a fellow fighter played by Thom Matthews. Jo, meanwhile, is under mind control that could probably be put to more nefarious use to assassinate a world leader or rob a bank, but is instead used to train Gary Daniels. Can Chance beat the baddies and break the cybernetic spell on his main squeeze?

The film’s tournament fight scenes are not much different from most below-average American martial arts movies from this era, but there are a couple of components that make them visually interesting. First, look at the size of that fighting ring. It’s a goddamn football field. The dimensions and openness don’t exactly force the action between competitors. It was a notable touch if only for the strange lack of logic, but more important than the fighting space is the actual roster of fighters.

To counteract the sameness of his fighters’ muscular physiques, even tans, and scorched-earth policy toward body waxing, Pyun spruces things up in the wardrobe department. In the year 2019, the American Apparel brand is alive and well as evidenced by the fighters’ multicolored legging ensembles. Reimagining the combatants as Alphabet City hipsters beating each other to cyborgy pulps made the fights slightly more palatable, so I’m glad Pyun included the flourish.

There are three things that I’ve found Pyun often does well as a director: he frames landscapes beautifully, he makes Vincent Klyn look bad-ass, and he builds unique cinematic worlds. In Heatseeker, the first strength is a moot point because the locations and the emphasis on interior shots aren’t conducive to the type of sprawling compositions endemic to films like 1993’s Knights. Vincent Klyn sat this one out so there’s another missed opportunity. The cinematic universe of enhanced human-cyborg hybrids battling it out in a tournament sponsored by villainous corporate overlords is a fun action genre idea and to have a lone human as a serious contender is an added bonus. However, this component of the film is never fully realized.

The nameless and faceless in-match commentary really sinks this film. It's a risky device regardless, but the first misfire is not having a two-man team play the parts of color commentator and play-by-play man; as a result, the commentary lacks variety and any real drama. The second issue is that the commentator spends too much time describing the effect of the fight outcomes on corporate stock prices, the various technologies of the cybernetic enhancements made to the fighters, and the backgrounds and records of each fighter.

All of this information is pretty much superfluous because the fights are thoroughly average and we don’t see any techniques that might be the result of cybernetic skill-sets. Sure, give me fighters getting kicked into the upper deck of the arena. Give me gymnastic dudes flipping and twisting around the mat. Hell, crank the camera and give me an E. Honda-style Hundred Hand Slap. The film relied too heavily upon the commentary as the primary device to put over the superhuman skills of the fighters, and the only visual indications the audience receives that these guys are even cyborgs are some post-match close-ups of metallic make-up effects. How are we supposed to buy into Chance’s underdog status if his competition is so thoroughly human?

The cast of Heatseeker is pretty solid, though not everyone is maximized to the full extent of their talents. Pyun mainstays Tim Thomerson and Norbert Weisser are terrific as the corporate Sianon baddies. Weisser actually gets the majority of screen-time and is provided plenty of scenery upon which to chew. As one of Sianon’s “elders,” Thomerson doesn’t have quite as much in the way of dialogue, but his look is unforgettable: a shock of red hair and what appears to be a single, conspicuous cocaine finger nail on his index finger. Bloodmatch veteran Thom Matthews also deserves special mention; he’s pretty good on both the dramatic and action fronts as the cocky and conflicted fighting CEO Bradford.

The film gets into trouble with its principals, however. Daniels is decent as the main fighting villain but he only fights twice during the actual tournament and neither of the scenes are particularly well-constructed. His training scenes with Jo have a glimmer of tension to them but you never really get the sense that Jo is teaching him anything of substantive value. As Chance O’Brien, Cooke does pretty much everything asked of him and his kick-heavy offense looks great when the editing and shot selection stay out of the way. Despite his charisma, I never quite felt that this was Cooke’s movie though.

For a hero-driven conflict of this length to work, the primary focus needed to be on the central character and his journey. Pyun generates plenty of sympathy for his protagonist with the early plot points, but the film then gets bogged down with Weisser hamming it up in the board room and flaky training sessions with Xao and Jo. I’m not sure if there were more scenes of the hero left on the cutting room floor due to studio interference, but despite his lead status, Cooke isn’t quite afforded the opportunity to carry the film.

This review probably read like I hated this movie, but I ended up digging Heatseeker a bit more than I’d expected. It’s a lesser Pyun film, but it still has a number of campy and enjoyable Pyun imprints. The main problems -- the staleness of the fights, the lack of narrative focus, and the commentary annoyance factor -- were big roadblocks to a true trash gem and it checks in at just below average. It’s unfortunate that this role remains Keith Cooke’s only leading performance. The guy is a terrific screen fighter and has genuine charisma … when he keeps his clothes on.

Currently streaming on Netflix Instant in the U.S. VHS hard copies available via Amazon and EBay.

3 / 7


When B-List Goes Hollywood: Ten Random Appearances by Martial Arts Actors in Mainstream Media

Partly because I have too much free time, but mostly because of this blog (which was more or less born out of having too much free time), I often pore over the filmographies of martial arts b-movie actors to track down films to review. Because of the niche skill-sets that these actors brandish, many of them have done little else but martial arts or action film and television work. Thus, most of my searches reveal no surprises. Every once in a while, though, I’ll stumble across an acting credit that’s unique because of the role the actor is playing, or because of the visibility of the production itself. When an actor jumps from PM Entertainment to an 8 PM prime-time television slot, it’s cause for celebration. Plenty of martial arts b-movie actors have logged screen-time in mainstream film and television productions. Some of these I knew and some were new to me, but compiled below is a short and random list of some of my favorite examples.

Dale Jacoby - Step by Step (1994)
The owner of one of the most incredible early-90s pompadours in action film history had few roles where he didn’t play a raging, Zabka-lite douchebag. So it’s no great surprise that he visited familiar territory for this supporting television role on a 1994 episode of TGIF’s saccharine stepfamily sitcom, Step by Step. Jacoby plays an evil and arrogant karate coach opposite Sasha Mitchell’s Zen-surfer martial artist, Cody, who’s trying to instill the fighting spirit in his nerdy step-cousin. The casting is a little less random when you consider that Jacoby and Mitchell worked together on Albert Pyun’s Kickboxer sequel in 1991.

Chuck Jeffreys - Pootie Tang (2001)
It was a bit of an inevitability that the Shaolin Wushu expert and Bloodmoon co-star would appear on this list. His list of various stunt credits in Hollywood productions is impressive and he’s one of the most prolific American fight coordinators of the modern film age. In a two-decade career that’s found him training Wesley Snipes for sword battles in the Blade films and choreographing fights in Spider-Man, perhaps none of his cinematic contributions were more memorable than selling the awesome power of the belt in the 2001 cult comedy Pootie Tang. Sine your pitty on the runny kine!

Jeff Wincott - The Wire (2008)
Jeff Wincott is probably the most “actorly” of the bunch on this list and has had a ton of mainstream film and television roles (The Invasion and last year’s Unstoppable among them). After combing through his credits, I’d narrowed it down to his role as an undercover "homeless" cop on HBO's The Wire, or his part in 2008’s Lake City, where he plays a menacing drug kingpin who slaps the shit out of Dave Matthews and strangles his balls, striking a mighty blow for jam-band haters everywhere. Odd as that might be, it gets no bigger than the series finale of the best television show in history.

Cynthia Rothrock - Eye for an Eye (1996)
More than any other part listed here, Rothrock’s role as a self-defense instructor is so short and fleeting that you will literally miss it if you blink. A Sally Field revenge thriller is pretty much the last place you’d expect to find a martial arts actor of Rothrock’s stature, but you can’t blame her for taking a break from the Herculean task of carrying Jalal Merhi to watchable movies.

Matthias Hues, Big Top Pee Wee (1988)
If you can find something more random than Matthias Hues running around in a lion-tamer’s outfit acting alongside Kris Kristofferson in this oft-reviled sequel to Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, I will give you my last can of Crystal Pepsi.

Loren Avedon - In Living Color (1991)
What makes Avedon’s cameo on the legendary Fox sketch-comedy show interesting is not that he plays a redneck cowboy, or even that he has to sell a terrible stomach punch by Damon Wayans (playing hilarious vocabulary manipulator Oswald Bates). Rather, this guest role came shortly after what arguably remains his best and most popular film, The King of the Kickboxers. Avedon shouldn’t feel too bad though; Wayans pilfered his co-star for a role in another mainstream production on this list.

Don “The Dragon” Wilson - Stealing Harvard (2002)
I was ready to put The Dragon down for his role as the gang leader who sets his day-glo goons on Robin in Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever. However, because the skull make-up turned him nearly unrecognizable, and “gang leader” isn’t quite so strange a part for a martial arts actor, I had to give top prize to his even more random role in the 2002 comedy Stealing Harvard. Wilson counted the late Chris Penn as one of his best friends in Hollywood and plays one of the Reservoir Dogs star’s drug gang thugs. Seeing him as a neon nightmare in a superhero summer blockbuster is pretty cool, but the viewing experience of the Bloodfist star trying to kick Tom Green’s head off while adorned in not much more than flip-flops and boxer shorts is fucking surreal.

Gary Daniels - The Expendables (2010)
There’s nothing unusual about a prolific DTV action star playing a supporting role in a Hollywood action production. What makes Gary Daniels’s role in the 2010 action throwback The Expendables unique is that Sylvester Stallone had literally dozens of actors he could have used to stoke the flames of action b-film nostalgia. While most of Gary’s action scenes in the film fell victim to choppy editing and the dreaded Hollywood shaky-cam, his inclusion suggests that Stallone has at least some admiration for DTV action of the 1990s. This might portend more interesting casting choices when you consider the rumor that Stallone’s vision for the sequel will be a “love letter to martial arts.” GASP.

Billy Blanks - The Last Boy Scout (1991)
I apologize to those of you who have been unable to fit this film into your viewing schedule at some point during the last 20 years, but Blanks might have the most impactful screen time of all the parts listed here. As star football running-back Billy Cole, Blanks has the joy of doing a bunch of PCP at halftime during a game and then shooting several would-be tacklers with a firearm during a breakaway running route in the film’s opening. After scoring a touchdown, he blows his brains out. Umm... Tae-Bo anyone?

Jerry Trimble - Heat (1995)
In his film debut, champion kickboxer Jerry Trimble played a mulleted drug dealer who gets his face burned with a space heater in The King of the Kickboxers. Five years later, he had a speaking part in some marginally successful crime drama directed by Michael Mann, and starring actors like Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Val Kilmer, Jon Voight, and Natalie Portman. Um...so...yeah. Jerry Trimble rules this list forever.

I know that I’ve missed a ton of equally deserving parts, so feel free to contribute your favorites in the comments below.


Expert Weapon (1993)

PLOT: An illiterate convict is sprung from death row and undergoes training to become an assassin. As it turns out, learning the finer details of killing people covertly is a hell of a lot easier than those prison GED programs.

Director: Steven Austin
Writer: Steven Austin, David Huey
Cast: Ian Jacklin, Sam J. Jones, Mel Novak, Joe Estevez, Julie Merrill, David Loo, Judy Landers

If you chart the career trajectory of a randomly selected marital arts actor who started his or career in the late 1980s or early 1990s, you’ll notice one of two themes. The actor’s filmography either fits on a postage stamp, or it contains a long and winding road of bit parts and stunt work that may or may not have paved the way for lead roles. Examples of the former include actors Rion Hunter and Brad Morris, both of whom turned in great lead villain performances but never again returned to the action genre. On the flipside is a guy like Billy Blanks. He played uncredited henchmen or mini-bosses before graduating to main villain in The King of the Kickboxers and finally settling in as an action lead during his prime DTV years in the 1990s. After several supporting roles in films with Gary Daniels and Don “The Dragon” Wilson, former kickboxer Ian Jacklin answered a similar call for 1993’s Expert Weapon. Did his early film work prepare him for the burden of carrying a film? Um … we’ll get to that.

Jacklin plays Adam Collins, a disrespectful street tough who gets his jollies from carjacking with his partner, Rex (Loo). They botch their latest attempt so badly that the car never leaves its parking space and the duo is forced to flee the police on foot after Rex shoots the car’s female owner in the back. Collins doesn’t appreciate the cruelty of his partner’s methods; after all, he took a nicer approach by only punching her in the face. During the ensuing stand-off with the cops, Collins struggles with one of the officers over a gun and guess who gets shot in the process? No, not Carrot Top. Why would you say that? Random.

While waiting in prison on death row and contemplating the next day’s usual onslaught of high-fives and extra pudding cups as a branded cop-killer, Collins receives a visit from a kindly middle-aged priest who wishes to pray for his eternal soul. The hardened convict responds by whipping out his member and unleashing a weak stream of urine on the priest’s Bible. While most priests might show forgiving disappointment toward this act of disrespect, this man of the cloth kicks Collins in the pills and starts raining blows on him before telling him that he has a choice: come with him, or die by execution. Collins isn’t about to go anywhere with some creepy priest, so he chooses the latter.

As he later watches noxious vapors fill the gas chamber on the day of his execution, Collins falls unconscious, only to awaken in a state of confusion on a cot in a darkened room. So ... there’s a Hell? And you have to sleep on rickety cots? No, actually. Collins has been transported to an underground facility run by Janson (Flash Gordon’s Sam Jones) and his co-pilot and priest impersonator Frank Miller (Novak). They’ve selected Collins for training in a shadowy program designed to turn ruthless and undereducated killers into elite assassins, and Miller has six months to shine this rough stone into a lethal gem.

Is six months enough time to create an elite assassin out of a convict who can’t read or write? When you’ve got the right mix of drama training, computer classes, and karate lessons, it’s apparently more than enough. From the waking hours through the end of the night, Collins is exposed to a smorgasbord of highly specialized training. A drama class is run by the sultry Lynn (Landers) to teach recruits how to perform undercover roles convincingly. A computer class teaches recruits how to hack networks. On the violence front, a course in firearms is taught by the hammy Joe Estevez, and Miller handles the fighting instruction by teaching students karate.

After Collins executes his preliminary assignments and later eliminates a mafia narcotics dealer, he becomes conflicted about the welfare of the kingpin’s blind widow, Vicky (Merrill). In an effort to wipe away the sins of the carjacking which left an innocent woman dead, Collins takes the widow into his care and they go on the run.

So, yeah, this isn’t a good film. In most cases, having a man on fire appear within the first three minutes of your film is a good sign, but the training scenes are pieced together haphazardly and the film gets excessively talky once Jacklin’s character turns into Hitman with a Heart of Gold. It would be all too easy to hang the anchor of blame for this movie’s failures around the neck of Ian Jacklin; after all, he’s the star and gets the lion’s share of screen time. However, I think the combination of a bad script and Jacklin being too green dramatically to carry a film is ultimately what sinks this. Like many martial artists thrust into the cinematic spotlight during the golden age of American DTV films, Jacklin was a kickboxer first and dramatic actor second. I'm not sure you could expect him to convincingly perform dialogue like “Screw you, nobody tells me what to do. I'll see you in hell!” Are there any actors who could? OK, fine ... any actors besides Nic Cage? Jacklin delivers most of his lines with all of the wooden disbelief you’d expect out of a twenty-something non-actor betrayed by poor writing and direction.

The pairing of bad acting and poorly choreographed martial arts can lead to magical, off-kilter cinema, but Expert Weapon isn’t awful enough on either front to embody the kind of reckless DIY spirit typified by films like No Retreat, No Surrender or even City Dragon. The action is pedestrian with poor camera angles on the fight scenes and a lack of imagination in the choreography. The actual techniques of Jacklin’s offense look good, but the filmmakers fail to make his moves flow together and these scenes have a stilted vibe. The wooden staff fight near the end of the film between Collins and an old crime partner is a cut above the rest, but it’s below-average even when compared to similarly below-average films.

As far as mentors go, Mel Novak’s asthmatic karate instructor Frank Milller is pretty good. It’s somewhat interesting to note that his initial appearance in Adam’s jail cell as a priest wasn’t such a stretch dramatically; Novak has apparently been involved with prison ministry for many years. Whether or not he kicks pestilent inmates in the balls and recruits them into secretive assassination squads, we can’t be sure.

While the film overall is rather poorly written and acted, the filmmakers make a genuine attempt at contrasting the Miller and Janson characters. Janson is the brash drill sergeant, always chewing on a stogie and referring to underlings as maggots. When he’s not sucking on his inhaler, the asthmatic Miller attempts to instill flimsy facsimiles of Eastern philosophy during martial arts training sessions. Performance-wise, Jones and Novak are the best parts of this movie, but even their collective dramatic competence isn’t enough to offset the film’s various technical and narrative flaws.

The only condition under which I could recommend Expert Weapon would be if someone asked me what movie might cause a spouse to withhold sex indefinitely. It’s a rough watch. There are a few small morsels of hokey violence and unintentional humor to savor, but not enough to satisfy a healthy craving for either element. For a kinder and gentler experience with the work of Ian Jacklin, try Death Match or his wigged-out turn as main villain in Don Wilson’s Ring of Fire 2.

Netflix, Amazon, EBay.

2.5 / 7

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