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


  1. Excellent write-up of a VHS classic! Thanks for the plug too.

    Love the Matthias quotes.

    1. Always happy to do so, Ty. I was a little surprised at how much I enjoyed this one. Matthias was pretty lively in it.

  2. I'm of the "great minds think alike" belief when it comes to these write-ups, but I understand that initial nagging hesitance following the whole Spiderbaby debacle. It's cool though, because at the very least what forces you to approach the flick in a different way also allows you to come up with a different/fresher take on it.

    Either way, I'm glad you covered Death Match because this slipped past my radar way back when. I think I had it confused with Final Round (also with Ian Jacklin) and dismissed it. What a cast! What licorice chewing! The "Shootfighter on cocaine and redeemed IOUs" line alone sold me on watching this, and I also want to see if Michele Krasnoo's apparent portrayal of me circa 1993 is solid or not.

    Anyway, like all your other reviews, this one is both informative and very, very funny. And those screencaps/dialogue are like cherries on a Zubaz sundae.

    1. Yeah, you never know. These genre film bloggers can be a cantankerous bunch. The last thing I need for my burgeoning (read: non-existent) writing career is an accusation of plagiarism and a grand shunning.

      Ian Jacklin didn't exactly set the world on fire during his acting career but he's great here and as the villain in Ring of Fire 2. Can't blame you for ignoring Final Round, as I tend to ignore Lorenzo Lamas entirely for the grand sin that was the Renegade series.

      I was so confused during the Krasnoo scenes. I get that they were trying to do something mildly subversive and novel by having a tiny white girl in the 'hood act so tough, but her dialog was awful. When Jacklin's character initially asks where she learned to fight, she responds: "The STREETS, MAN." The character reminded me of the punk in the Trading Spouses sketch from Chappelle's Show: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I859Uym2sAQ. I wonder if Chappelle and Neal Brennan watched Death Match before they wrote that character?


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