Directors: David Haycox, Mardy South
Writers: Kathy Varner (screenplay), Danny Dennison (story)
Cast: Curtis Bush, Kathy Reynolds, Rodney Suitor, Tom Story, Rick Clark
Following in the footsteps of those before him -- Don “The Dragon” Wilson, and Jerry “Golden Boy” Trimble included -- Curtis “The Explosive Thin Man” Bush swapped out his gloves and shin guards for acting in 1990, when he played “Poacher/Ninja” in an obscure Canadian kickboxing movie called Dragon Hunt. After a few years of supporting roles, he graduated to star performer in 1997’s Psycho Kickboxer. While it’s true that we’ve failed to cover anything in the Best of the Best franchise, any of Jeff Speakman’s output, and not a single fucking Lorenzo Lamas movie, I guess I’m a sucker for box art depicting a ninja kicking a dude’s head off his body with blood spurting out.
A kickboxing Virginian named Alex Hunter (Bush) has his world turned upside down when both his new fiancee and his police chief father are murdered by goons working for Hawthorne (Story), the foppish crime boss Papa Hunter was trying to lock away. Shot and left for dead, Alex awakens days later to find that a handicapped homeless war veteran named Joshua (Suiter) has taken him in, healed his wounds, and nursed him back to health. While grateful, Alex laments the lost opportunity to protect his loved ones, recounting the terrible event with all the raw emotion of an elderly man reading letters off an eye chart. It turns out that Hawthorne is a common enemy for both men; Joshua reveals that he was paralyzed by Hawthorne’s gang. He wants Alex to act as his legs and warns that their vengenace hinges upon Alex “controlling the animal." Whatever dude.
Among other activities, controlling the animal consists of Alex hitting the heavy bag, doing sit-ups, running along a beach, and dressing up like a ninja while stopping petty criminals from committing everything from armed robbery to grand theft auto. He also scares some children from spraypainting the side of a warehouse, an act which experts agree is either a gateway crime to more violent deeds or a good way to break into the art world. His completely unoriginal brand of vigilante justice earns Alex the moniker of "The Dark Angel" in the media and catches the interest of private investigator Jack Cook (Clark) and a character named Cassie Wells (Reynolds) who may or may not have been a journalist, but definitely had a topless scene.
We should probably start off with the good. Curtis Bush has a solid moustache and you can tell that he's a legitimate fighter; he’s athletic, his strikes are crisp and his kicks in particular are delivered with great form. However, sabotaging Bush’s display of physical skills is the usual three-headed Ghidorah of pedestrian choreography, poor camera angles, and amateurish editing. Some unusual touches brighten up this blueprint on occasion. Alex dons his ninja gear to fight a pair of gangbangers donned in Zubaz pants in the middle of the day on the Virginia Beach boardwalk as beachgoers observe with confused restraint. In a scene that recalls Lady Snowblood’s unique combination of cinematic violence and serene snowfall, Bush’s character kicks a bag of cocaine in the air and covers two violent drug dealers in Colombian Marching Powder before beating them unconscious.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the ridiculous amount of gore strewn throughout the film: a gruesome headshot in an ode to Tom Savini’s work in Maniac, a crushed head beneath a car tire, and a chopped hand during a tense gang meeting are some of the highlights. I counted one instance where chocolate syrup was substituted for blood, and it honestly would’ve been better used on ice cream or mixed with bourbon, as I often do when lacking more suitable mixers.
On what was, no doubt, a shoestring budget, directors David Haycox and Mardy South prove occasionally capable. While Haycox won’t get any comparisons to Christopher Doyle or Dean Cundey for his camera work, he frames a few good shots throughout the film but the frequent use of steadicam was nauseating. There’s no major technical faux pas on the level of a visible boom mic or crash mat, but the film looks really washed out and poorly lit overall. That can be forgiven considering the budget, but a better effort in this area alone could have elevated the content. The directing duo’s attention to gore is both curious and gratuitous, so I obviously loved it. In a kickboxing movie filled with shit lighting and SNES-level music, I appreciated that they flouted most tenets of technically sound filmmaking to focus on executing not one, but two exploding head scenes. Perhaps to the film’s benefit, they leaned on a lot of footage of a pair of radio DJ personalities talking about The Dark Angel's deeds to pad out the running time. While grating, they provide an element of quirk to the story which, outside of the Joshua character, the film sorely lacks.
If you got through the trailer for this movie and thought anything other than “I’ve been waiting my entire life for a movie that combines video-quality production values, kickboxing, campy gore, and on-air banter from Virginia radio DJs” you are going to be sorely disappointed by Psycho Kickboxer. I think a weak script left Curtis Bush vulnerable to some fairly awful moments -- screams of despair and dialogue that exposes his discomfort with emoting come to mind -- but he acquits himself reasonably well during fight scenes. At the end of the day, this is a quirky slice of movie-making best enjoyed amongst friends. Forgiving, non-judgemental, extremely stoned, possibly unconscious friends.
Amazon, Netflix, EBay.
3.5 / 7