Low Blow (1986)

PLOT: A religious nutjob has just accepted the latest confused member into his isolated cult. However, her rich father is willing to pay any price for her safe return (within reason). Before long, a martial artist private investigator is in hot pursuit, racking up parking tickets, moving violations, and mangled fenders along the way.

Director: Frank Harris
Writer: Leo Fong
Cast: Leo Fong, Cameron Mitchell, Troy Donahue, Diane Stevenett, Akosua Busia, Stack Pierce, Woody Farmer, Billy Blanks

Few things are as irritating as mealtime interruptions. Whether it’s phone calls from telemarketers, a hilarious text from a friend, or the sudden onset of food poisoning, these disruptions can turn that Sunday roast into a cold platter of unwanted leftovers. Some of us have a greater threshold for this phenomenon than others, making the good deeds of Leo Fong’s lead character in the 1984 film Low Blow all the more admirable.

Fong plays Joe Wong, a down-on-his-luck private investigator hired by a rich square to save his daughter from the clutches of a new age cult. Director Frank Harris illustrates our hero's prowess in the early-going, as Wong awkwardly interrupts a diner robbery by checking on the status of his ham sandwich order. Instead of paying the cashier, he unloads his revolver on the unsuspecting robbers and as it turns out, he was just kidding about the sandwich. Really, Joe? We thought you were serious about the cooks slaving over a ham sandwich as you risked the lives of everyone around you with your itchy trigger finger. His risky behavior isn't just relegated to eateries. Any time he parks his rusty shitbox, he coasts into dividers and concrete barriers without fail. Or lots of fail, depending on whether your minimum requirements for bad driving include slow-moving collisions or necessitate civilian deaths.

As evidenced by his Indian bindi, his Jewish Star of David tattoo, and his raging Christ complex, the cult’s leader, Yarakunda (Mitchell) is confused at best, and at worst, drunk. Karma (Busia) is his mostly sober right-hand lady, whose fondness for conniving power plays is matched only by her love of sugary circus peanuts. She runs point on every last detail of the cult's compound, from the brown-bag lunchtime lectures, to the fruitless gardening of its arid fields, to the muscular and heavily-armed security staff, headed by the menacing Guard (Blanks). Not only does this movie feature the worst character name ever bestowed on Mr. Blanks, but also the worst utilization of his talents. More on that later.

While the action quotient is high, the fight choreography in Low Blow is below-average, and that’s being generous. Most of the stuntmen sell the strikes decently enough, but the pace of most fights is stilted and the editing and camera angles do nothing to help matters. Leo Fong isn’t the quickest cat in the room, but he holds almost legendary status in the off-screen martial arts world and was 58 years-old when this film was released. For evidence of his better action work, check out Enforcers from Death Row, which includes a lively serrada free-flow drill with Grandmaster Angel Cabales.

My guess is that Fong had slowed down considerably by this point and Harris and company made a conscious choice to eschew the technically slick for pure camp in the fight scenes. A group of enemies attempting to escape in a car gets an unexpected tune-up as Fong pops the hood, pulls out an important-looking car part to stall it, and dons safety goggles before a protracted removal of the car roof using a metal saw. He is smiling the entire time because he loves amateur auto maintenance. However bizarre that scene may have been, the crown jewel might be Leo Fong angrily stomping what appears to be a pile of mashed potatoes disguised as a human head. In other words, it resembled Thanksgiving 2006 at the Brezdin household after I discovered that mother used instant mashed potatoes.

The filmmakers had a golden opportunity to make the most of the film’s top two fighting talents in Fong and Billy Blanks. The Blanks character is built up as the cult’s physical enforcer and the story wisely keeps the two separated physically for the majority of the film before saving their encounter for Joe Wong’s night-time invasion of the cult’s compound. How long might you expect this fight to go? Ten-plus minutes? No dice, this isn’t 1980s Hong Kong. Maybe a healthy five? Optimistic but unlikely. This fight goes for about 35 seconds. Most of the scene is oriented around the Blanks character spitting two variations of “I’m going to kill you,” quiet posturing, and viewing angles positioned behind the fighters. And forget about a grisly death -- Blanks is rendered unconscious by an arm take-down and a jab to the mush.

I’m not sure if Frank Harris and Leo Fong meant for us to laugh at all the surreal moments in Low Blow. Yet, I can think of no more appropriate response for vanquished enemies waking up in piles of puppies, protracted auto body metal saw attacks, and Leo Fong driving a car like a drunken senior citizen. On occasion, martial arts flicks strive for a certain tone in between the fight scenes, but end up realizing something completely different. Intentional or not, Low Blow is one of those movies.

For DVD options, it's included as one of ten movies on Navarre Corporation's Maximum Action set. Also available on VHS through Amazon and EBay.

4.5 / 7


The Dynamite Brothers (1974)

PLOT: For the first ten minutes, it's like that movie Fled where two dudes on the run are chained together. For the next seventy minutes, it's like that blaxploitation movie where all the white cops are racist and the heroes just can't catch a break. For the final ten minutes, it's like that martial arts movie where EVERYBODY FUCKING DIES.

Director: Al Adamson
Writers: John D'Amato, Marvin Lagunoff, Jim Rein
Cast: Alan Tang, Timothy Brown, Aldo Ray, James Hong, Don Oliver, Al Richardson, Carol Speed, Richard Lee-Sung

This week, we have the distinct pleasure of being included in Lost Video Archive’s Week of Hong, a cooperative effort between several exceptional blogs to cover over a dozen films from the distinguished filmography of Hollywood veteran James Hong. We’re no stranger to the Hong around these parts, having previously covered his contributions to martial arts movies such as Talons of the Eagle and Operation Golden Phoenix. We can argue about the quality of those and other low-budget films in which Hong has made appearances, but one thing is undeniable: Hong’s efforts are a consistent and steadying presence in every film he makes.

Around the same time Hong was cutting his teeth as a supporting player in Roman Polanski’s sprawling 1974 noir Chinatown, he was also putting in a few honest hours’ work as a ruthless crime boss in Al Adamson’s chopsocky-tinged blaxploitation film The Dynamite Brothers. This type of juxtaposition is Exhibit D for why the 1970s was and continues to be the best decade in American film history.

Let's get this out of the way: this film basically sucks. The opening five minutes and the climax are the best stretches of the runtime and by no small coincidence, that's where James Hong gets the most play as the villainous crime boss, Tuen. Alan Tang plays the Hogan to his Andre as Larry Chin, a heroic transplant from Hong Kong searching for his brother. Chin is picked up by the police for illegally entrering into the country and gets lumped into a squad car with Stud Brown (Brown), a laid-back dude picked up for what we can only assume was a charge of breaking hearts. Or maybe public lewdness, because he can't seem to keep his shirt buttoned up. Jaywalking? Loitering? How the fuck should I know? Don't sweat the details (the writers didn't).

As heroes are want to do, the pair makes a quick getaway and flees to Los Angeles to chase a tip on the whereabouts of Larry's brother. Along the way, they encounter helpful motorists while hitch-hiking, a kindly crime boss named Smiling Man, and a lot of foxy women concealing unkempt pubic hair, in keeping with the "big" hair style of the era. Unfortunately, few of these interactions are of any consequence. You know where the story is going within the first ten minutes of the movie and it's really just a matter of how much fighting, fucking, and continuity errors Adamson can jam in between points A and B.

The director was going for an interesting cross-cultural dynamic between Chin and Brown, but there's no tension or disagreement whatsoever between them. Instead, they're utilized as a punching bag for a bunch of racist one-liners courtesy of drunken whiteboy thugs and a corrupt detective played by Aldo Ray. Some of this can be forgiven as an artifact of the genre, but if that's not offensive enough for you, the film also features a romantic subplot between Stud Brown and a mute girl who lacks the ability to express her thoughts or feelings. Ironically, she's basically the only female character who keeps her top on. Positive feminist icon?

It's not all bad though. The title sequence included an interesting visual mix of action shot silhouettes and psychedelic colors over an incredibly funky opening track by soul jazz organist Charles Earland. Tang and Brown are decent as the heroes, though neither has the acting chops to carry the film on their own for any considerable length of time. In a case like that, one might assume the director would lean on his best actor to buoy the story, but Hong is barely on-screen and probably not as devious as he should have been. When he's present, however, he's consistently solid, and gets some appropriately incredible outfits for his troubles. Plaid jackets, polyester suits, and incredible white turtlenecks are all on the table. This film might also have the best Hong-stache he's ever sported.

Adamson is quoted on his IMDb profile as having said that he was "a better action director than anything," which is rather curious since the majority of fight scenes here are tawdry, neutered affairs. The one shoot-out in the movie is very poorly lit, has no squibs, and consists of intercutting between close-ups of guys squinting defensively as their guns go off. However, the film earns a bit of goodwill back with a zany finale that sees insane stunt falls, a car driving off a cliff, and a grisly scalp mauling. That there are no visible crash pads whatsoever will either warm your cinematic heart or really piss you off to end.

This was my first experience with an Al Adamson film, and though it pains me to say this, it probably won’t be my last. While the majority of this movie is forgettable and hackneyed by most critical measures, it’s not nearly as sloppy as expected and works fine as junk food cinema. (Admittedly, it helps that he directed two Jim Kelly films, an actor I've yet to cover). As is something of a welcomed pattern, James Hong acts circles around the rest of the cast and if only for short bursts, he elevates the film well above its source material. For Hong completists and Adamson acolytes only.

Netflix, Amazon, YouTube.

2.5 / 7

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