Director: John Weidner
Writers: Ken Lamplugh, John Weidner
Cast: Steve Railsback, Dan Tullis Jr., Stuart Whitman, Michael Champion, Holly Floria, James Lew, Vince Murdocco, John Salvitti, Art Camacho
One could say that lately, I’ve been on the fence. Wishy-washy. Running hot and cold and feeling like the title of Natalie Imbruglia’s only American hit single, which if I remember correctly, was “No Scrubs.” In any case, when you’re trying to fix your critical eye on a cohesive theme -- in this case, martial arts films of the 1980s and 90s with Western actors -- your approach can erode quickly if you’re not careful. One Van Damme movie here, a Jet Li movie there, and before you know it, you’re just another dude on the Internet bitching about Michael Bay movies and the glory days of Steven Seagal and DMX team-ups.
So it’s with some trepidation that I roll out a review of Private Wars, a 1993 PM Entertainment film directed by Ring of Fire and Deadly Bet editor John Weidner. It features James Lew as a main bad guy, Art Camacho, Vince Murdocco, and even Donnie Yen’s bro-ham John Salvitti in a guest role. All the stars would appear to be aligned, so what’s missing? A martial arts hero to rule them all.
Which is exactly what the Jackson Heights, Los Angeles neighborhood at the center of our story needs. No more than a half-dozen gang members pretty much run things. They terrorize business owners, destroy bodegas with grenade launchers, and worse yet, they blare generic golden-age rap music from boomboxes with complete impunity. Community organizer Mo Williams (Tullis Jr.) is fed up with the violent behavior, and tries to rally the locals to take back their neighborhood.
They feel helpless though. They’re average citizens and they’re not trained for this kind of effort. Instead, they’re fleeing the violent neighborhood in droves, which is exactly what evil land developer Alexander Winters (Whitman) wants. By financing the local gang to terrorize the locals, he’s paving the way for the replacement of residential property with a massive expansion of commercial space. Since we can’t have a DTV action movie without police corruption, Police Chief Carter (Champion) is also on the Winters payroll.
Out of options and presiding over a terrified citizenry, Williams turns to the one man he knows he can trust -- Jack Manning, played by veteran actor Steve Railsback. Unfortunately for the community of Jackson Heights, Manning is a shell of his former self. After being framed by dirty cops eight years ago, he was booted from the police force for his unorthodox undercover work. He’s replaced his tools of craft and cunning with Jack Daniels and Jim Beam, and now works as an unreliable alcoholic private investigator. Can Manning flip the switch and clean up the community? Or will he continue to drink himself to death while firing his gun at rats crawling over his day-old donuts? (Not trying to spin a metaphor -- this actually happened).
This was a pleasant surprise. PM Entertainment built its brand on a workmanlike approach to action scenes, and Private Wars is but another example of its capacity for bombast on a budget. The sequences here range from creative to insane to completely zany. One sequence finds a garbage man chained to the front of his truck and driven a through the streets at high speeds. In a brief scene from his days on the force, Manning slams a surveillance van through a newstand, then a fruit stand, then a telephone booth... with a police officer hanging on his hood. In possibly the most cringe-worthy scene, a gang member is forced to eat chili peppers at gunpoint. That the gang retaliated by destroying a bodega later that night almost seems reasonable when considering the pepper’s likely effects in the gang member’s bathroom.
Even in the absence of a logical context for martial arts, Weidner finds a way to place his martial arts actors in positions where they can show their skills. In limited but significant screen time, street toughs played by Murdocco and Salvitti tangle with Manning during their shared time in a jail cell. Our hero not only beats up both men, but he wins their respect and their help in the story’s climactic confrontation with Winters’s goons. Above all others, though, James Lew’s turn as the villainous Obata gets the most exposure. He’s built up throughout the story as Winters’ most fearsome asset, and his look, particularly in the final scenes, is superb. Some villains might opt for ill-fitting suits or generic denim as they head into battle. Obata? He goes with a silk shirt and a black leather trenchcoat because he’s going to get a high-end steak dinner afterwards. It didn’t turn out that way, obviously, but points to Lew for positive thinking and snazzy dressing.
Steve Railsback is no Loren Avedon, but he fits in comfortably as the hero of the story. His character arc from the gutter to redemption is nothing original, but it inspires the necessary sympathy to invest in the larger story. More than that, Railsback has the dramatic chops to play each aspect of his character convincingly, especially the extremes. When we see him get hit in the stomach, vomit on the attacker’s shoes, and then slam his head through a table in response, we buy it. When Manning pieces his life together and starts cleaning up the streets, we believe it. When he puts the moves on the attractive younger sister of a deceased shop owner, we accept it but only because it’s a fictional movie.
It doesn’t feature any of PM’s tried and true leading martial arts stars on the level of Don Wilson or Gary Daniels, but Private Wars still brandishes a cadre of recognizable faces from the glory days of DTV action. Weidner and company achieve some really cool visuals during the action sequences, Railsback heads up a solid group of memorable performances, and the film even packs some light comedy for the kids. Is it a martial arts film, per se? Probably not, but PM Entertainment was known for blurring the lines in the name of accessible action entertainment. If you’re looking for an underseen gem from their vaults, this is recommended viewing.
Netflix, Amazon, EBay, YouTube.
5 / 7