Director: Siu-Hung Leung
Writer: Keith W. Strandberg
Cast: Brandon Gaines, Keith Vitali, Kelly Gallant, Chuck Jeffreys, Cliff Lenderman, Patrick Lung-Kong, Brian Ruth, Feihong Yu, Jim Steele, Rob Van Dam
In terms of future careers, kids have a tendency to dream big. Many aspire to grow up and enter practical fields like medicine or education, while others dream of odd or completely unrealistic jobs: penguin milker or mermaid supermodel. The protagonist in 1995's Superfights falls into the latter group. Probably with a much louder thud than the other kids, because he’s roughly 20 years old.
By day, young Jack Cody (Gaines) works a boring job as a clerk in a sporting goods warehouse. By night, he’s a lifelong fan of a fighting organization called Super Fights. The competition could best be described as the love child conceived during a drunken night of fun between WMAC Masters and pro wrestling. The fighters have colorful costumes and unique personalities. The live events feature martial arts battles between heroes and villains in front of packed crowds. Jack is so enthralled with the sport that he spends the majority of his work hours going through training drills with an elaborate system of pulleys and mannequins. This is not so unusual. When I worked at American Apparel, I rigged up a similar system to simulate heated confrontations with people in overpriced v-neck shirts who had nothing interesting to say.
During a contemplative night drive, Jack notices a girl being mugged at an outdoor ATM and makes the save. Sally Wong (Yu) is only the latest in a long line of young women who failed to avoid using the cash machine at night in a poorly lit area. (They're called "best practices" for a reason, Sally). The resulting media blitz piques the interest of Super Fights president Robert Sawyer (Vitali) and he sees dollar signs. Not because he’s on LSD, but because the young media hero represents a great business opportunity.
Sawyer extends Jack a lucrative offer -- an American flag-themed costume and a roomy townhouse -- and the one-time superfan joins the ranks of his idols as a competitor. He finds himself brushing shoulders with guys like No Mercy Budokai (Lenderman) and Dark Cloud (Jeffreys) in the locker room and the gym. He hones his skills in a high-tech training center under the tutelage of Sawyer's right-hand lady, Angel (Gallant), herself an active Superfighter. Throughout the film, you can cut the sexual tension between Jack and Angel with a knife, because the sexual tension is room temperature and easily spreadable on bread. Kelly Gallant side-boob has that effect on things.
To balance out the friskiness of this mentor-student relationship, Jack occasionally trains with Sally's grandfather (Lung-Kong). A Tai Chi master, Grandpa Wong doesn't think much of Jack's fighting skills, his new gig as a famous fighter, or even his townhouse. The elder is right to be suspicious because things in the world of Super Fights are not as they appear. The fighting roster is encouraged to gargle down an odd vitamin cocktail and selected fighters regularly cruise around in a white van and leave a trail of destroyed restaurants and crippled drug dealers in their wake. What are they up to? Why doesn't Jack close the deal with Angel or Sally? Why did the filmmakers dress up Chuck Jeffreys like a Jamaican Jack Sparrow?
As stated in the past, the real sweet spot for American DTV martial arts movies is that holy intersection of a zany premise, good fight sequences, and hilariously bad acting. The latter element here, while hammy, isn't consistently awful enough to be funny, but the premise, characters, and fantastic fight sequences in Superfights make this a delicious slice of action cheese. In his American directorial debut, Siu-Hung Leung took a bit of a risk by relying on a first-time actor in Brandon Gaines to carry the film, but Gaines hits most of his character’s notes to perfection. He's enthusiastic to the point of obnoxiousness and naive to the point of stupidity, which makes the journey into his passion's sleazy underbelly all the more compelling. Or ridiculous.
Given his easygoing demeanor and a serious lack of vocal gravel, one could argue that Keith Vitali was a poor casting choice for the Robert Sawyer character. However, I’d make the case that these traits, in some ways, enhance his Sawyer’s veneer of warmth and generosity. Such a personality guise made Gaines’ buy-in all the more plausible. Furthermore, his fight scene at the back-end of the film is one of the better scenes you're likely to find in Stateside martial arts output. It’s shot competently, the choreographers make good use of the physical environment, and the performers move with that elusive mix of speed and fluidity.
The film’s appropriately titled theme song, “Superfighter” is an inventive exercise in lyricism. Most action film songs would be content to pair thematically relevant cliches with a few killer guitar licks. Instead, the song “Superfighter” makes direct references to training techniques, the deceptions at the story’s center, and even specific character names. It is both endearing in its absurdity and completely awesome in its literalism. Yes, of course you can find it on YouTube with subtitles.
For fans of both the martial arts genre and offbeat action, Superfights represents the colored, overlapping portion of the Venn Diagram. There are certainly better uses of your time than creating logical visualizations of related film genre concepts, but I just spent three hours writing a rundown of a chopsocky/wrestling movie. I’m not here to judge. If you like your plots zany, your characters bizarre, and your martial arts fast and technically proficient, Superfights fills all three of your needs. Also, side-boob.