Death Match (1994)

PLOT: A dockworker's friend goes missing after participating in underground fights to the death. To be more accurate, though, they fight to the death only occasionally. Other times, they just break appendages or fight until one guy gets too tired and falls asleep in the ring.

Director: Joe Cappoletto
Writer: Curtis Gleaves, Bob Wyatt, Steve Tymon
Cast: Ian Jacklin, Martin Kove, Matthias Hues, Michele Krasnoo, Benny “The Jet” Urquidez, Eric Lee, Peter Cunningham, Ed Neil, Jorge Rivero, Richard Lynch.

I had this post ready to go earlier in the week, but after reading similar coverage over at Comeuppance Reviews, the events of the past 10 days or so made me rethink my jump-off point of positioning Death Match as a DTV answer to The Expendables that happened years ago. Suffice to say, there have been a lot of movies in the martial arts b-movie catalog that stacked their casts with recognizable names. Shootfighter, to name one, featured Martin Kove, Bolo Yeung, John Barrett, Kenn Scott, Hakim Alston, Gerald Okamura, and William Zabka in its cast. That’s enough action b-movie talent to choke a horse! (To be fair, Bolo alone would be sufficient for the task of horse-choking).

Director Joe Cappoletto’s 1994 film Death Match is like Shootfighter on cocaine and redeemed IOUs. He either had a ton of friends in the business or a vast, filthy collection of blackmail material -- this is an incredible cast. So what if there’s no Brian Thompson or James Hong? We get appearances like Eric Lee as a hotel proprietor, Conquest star Jorge Rivero as a crime boss, and pro wrestlers Tony Halme and Debra Micelli as random muscle for short action scenes. Richard Lynch. A dwarf in a do-rag hitting a gong before matches. Benny “The Jet” Urquidez. Two minutes of Ed Neil from Breathing Fire fighting No Retreat No Surrender’s Peter “Sugarfoot” Cunningham. This sort of fanboy casting might be the closest we’ll ever get to Tarantino directing a DTV kickpunching homage.

Death Match stars Canadian kickboxer Ian Jacklin as a dockworker named John Larson. He and his friend Nick Wallace (Hill) are winding down their shift and shooting the shit. When Nick approaches who he assumes is the foreman to collect their paychecks, he's stopped by a bodyguard. A massive brawl ensues and the pair of friends is forced to kick ass. During the skirmish, a broken crate reveals a stash of guns and the heroes make a break for it before things get too heavy.

They head to the local bar to pound beers and lament the loss of their jobs. This is the third time they've lost employment together since moving to Los Angeles! John speculates that he may head north to find work, save money, and head back to college. Nick has other ideas. He recently met a dude at the gym who runs underground fights and they pay handsomely, or at least enough to cover a small studio apartment and the occasional trip to Whole Foods.

The aforementioned dude is Paul Landis (Kove) and as far as crime bosses who are into designer glasses, and own lots of blazers, and have a pool, and enjoy red-rope licorice, and think that crystals give them magical powers, and credit their “edge” on the competition to the use of computers, he’s a tough customer. He’s flanked by right-hand man Mark Vanik (Hues), a smooth-talking hulk who’s a little oversensitive about his hair (he beats up anyone who refers to him as “Goldilocks”). In addition to their underground fight ring, the duo also sells illegal firearms -- like any sound businessmen, they offer multiple products to create more marketing opportunities and diversify their customer portfolio, Procter & Gamble stylee.

Business comes at a cost, which Nick soon discovers first-hand when he fails to kill his opponent during a fight. The crowd voices their disappointment, and no, Nick, they are not mispronouncing your name as “Booowallace.” Landis and Vanik confront him in the locker room about closing the deal and whatever happens next is anyone’s guess, because Nick disappears and John is left with only questions about the whereabouts of his friend and former co-worker.

This is the point where our filmmakers crank the “film noir undertones” knob up to 11, but the knob breaks off at 6 and the machine starts smoking and sparking and then everyone has to evacuate the building because it’s on fire. John cruises around L.A. on his motorcycle and meets all sort of odd characters holding different pieces of the puzzle. Who’s on his side? What does the foxy journalist really want? Why is Michele Krasnoo playing her character like she’s a 12 year-old boy who just bought his first Dr. Dre album?

For the most part, this film delivered the goods. It was well-paced, the characters were interesting, the acting was competent, and the action was solid. I’ve groaned in the past about the constraints of tournament and/or underground fight movies, but I couldn’t find much to malign here because the main story thread was compelling and it moved at a good clip. The fights themselves take place in a variety of settings with all sorts of variables: in a cage, with sticks, on the streets, with boxing gloves, inter-gender, in bars, and even on a military ship. There’s a date montage inter-cut with a training montage, a villain obsessed with crystals and early-90s computer technology, turtlenecks, bolo ties, and strategic conversations while characters are getting massages. Cappoletto went down the fucking martial arts b-movie checklist and ticked all the boxes. Does that make it a little “paint-by-numbers”? I guess, but he colored within the lines and has a creative palette.

When the novelty of interesting casting choices has worn off, what’s left? That’s the question this or any film which makes a spectacle of its ensemble cast is forced to answer. Fortunately, the filmmakers crafted Death Match as a pacey underground fighting story with film noir flourishes. The fight choreography won’t blow you away, but Ian Jacklin brings improved charisma to the screen, Martin Kove is hitting his rich asshole villain stride with another good performance, and all of the players -- martial artists and otherwise -- fulfill their roles admirably. Recommended.

VHS, Region 2 DVD, or YouTube.

5 / 7


American Chinatown (1996)

PLOT: A pair of young, star-crossed lovers is caught in the middle of a vicious gang turf war. When the girl’s crime boss brother discovers that her chosen companion is his top enforcer, his anger and exceptionally massive chin threaten to destroy everything.

Director: Woo-sang Park
Writer: Woo-sang Park
Cast: Tae-joon Lee, Robert Z'Dar, Bobby Kim, Liat Goodson, Eric T. Lee, Sung-Ki Jun

During the film awards season of 2009, a lot of deserved attention was on Mickey Rourke’s masterful comeback performance in the 2008 film, The Wrestler. While he’d been working semi-regularly, it had been years since he lit it up in a starring role. Up to that point, many had agreed his career as a leading man in Hollywood was all but finished. Since that time, Rourke has rallied admirably, scoring high-profile roles in Iron Man 2, The Expendables, and Immortals, among others. As it turns out, we may have the star of 1995’s American Chinatown to thank. Tae-joon Lee is a Grandmaster in Hwa Rang Do, the Korean martial art that his father helped to create. In an interview with the French magazine, Karate Bushido, Rourke described how his foray into Hwa Rang Do and training with Lee helped to save his career.

I don’t know much about Tae-joon Lee, but here are some of the facts. He worked on two films with L.A. Streetfighters and Miami Connection director Woo-sang Park: this one and KK Family List. He was in a movie with Rob Lowe. He wears his hair long, rocks a mean sportscoat, and is capable of growing his own facial hair. He’s a pretty good onscreen fighter and a capable fight choreographer, but an average actor. In the great tradition of Jeff Wincott, however, he is an outstanding martial artist chainsmoker. Watching him in this film literally made my throat and eyes scratchy. (I was putting up insulation at the time).

Lee plays Yong, a street tough who acts as the main muscle for a gang run by his friend Eric (Z’Dar). The opening scene finds him breaking up a potential gang rape by felling a trio of Hispanic gangbangers with kicks and punches before shaking them down for their clothes and money. He then befriends their intended victim, a college student named Lily (Goodman). Their night ends when Yong drives her to a rough neighborhood to visit his friend and mentor, a street food vendor named Jim (Kim). After a bite to eat, he admonishes her for hanging out in rough neighborhoods and tells her to go home.

As in all relationships, these two crazy kids fall into a pattern. Lily comes to visit Yong in a bad part of town, Yong admonishes her for hanging out around roughnecks in bad neighborhoods, she cries, she gets attacked by roughnecks on her way home, then he saves her from said roughnecks. Yong is cold, emotionally unavailable, and irritable. These qualities seem born out of self-loathing, and he constantly vocalizes his displeasure with Lily’s attraction to him. She is positively smitten.

Even less pleased about Lily’s attraction to Yong is her step-brother and local crime kingpin, Eric. He only wants the best for his younger sister. He showers her with spending money on the regular and even puts out some feelers in South Korea to find Lily's birth mother. Aside from his drug dealing and murder habits, he's the model of a doting older brother. When he discovers that Lily's boyfriend and his top enforcer are one in the same, he sends a message to Yong: stay away from Lily or else. He punctuates it by stabbing Yong in the stomach. I'm not sure if that was meant to be an exclamation point or a period in the gang world, but let's not discount the possibility that it was an em dash or ellipsis either. These miscreants are as lawless with their grammar and punctuation as they are with their drug-running and killing.

In his second-to-last screen performance is Bobby Kim, as Yong’s mentor, Jim. This was actually great casting. Kim’s weary face communicates his character’s years as a crime boss, and his disposition demonstrates a sincere desire to be left alone (unless you’re looking to buy a burger). He’s been described as the “Asian Charles Bronson” and I can’t disagree on that point. Both are visibly aged men who can still kill a motherfucker as needed. Kim throws a few kicks towards the end of the film, but is used primarily to dispense sage advice through mumbles and occasional (unsubtitled) tangents into Korean.

It’s difficult to imagine any scenario where this film was made for much more than $10,000. The lighting is virtually non-existent, most locations look run-down or hastily thrown together, and the majority of the acting is pretty flat. All that said, Woo-sang Park is one of the subgenre’s kings at microbudget filmmaking; if you're trying to do a picture on the cheap, he’s well-equipped to stretch your film dollar. The action contains some convincing bloodletting and there’s a few decent large-scale brawls. Technically speaking, the major misstep here is the sound mix. Gregory Degen apparently couldn’t decide between a mono or stereo mix and when the sound wasn’t inaudible or distorted, it was peaking like a banshee after getting hit in the crotch. Perhaps the boom operator was partly to blame; the filmmakers included this ball-busting message to him in the credits.

As is the case curse for most great genre actors, Robert Z’Dar was charged with elevating American Chinatown’s derivative source material through the sheer force of his performance. Dramatically, he’s the best and most watchable thing about the film. He has a few good lines. He looks cool with a moustache in a film that relies heavily upon them. However, the romance between Lily and Yong really drags the film down and not even Z’Dar can help that; what should have been a subplot is instead the film’s focus. I can appreciate that the filmmakers tried something different, but other than Z’Dar, a few decent fights, and a latter-day Bobby Kim mumblecore performance, there’s not enough here to keep the movie afloat.

2.5 / 7

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