Director: Darrell Roodt
Writers: Gret Latter, Darrell Roodt
Cast: John Barrett, Robert Whitehead, Michel Qissi, Robert Whitehead, Michelle Bestbier, Ted Le Plat, Greg Latter, Norman Antsey, Claudia Udy.
My favorite living filmmaker is probably David Lynch. He’s made his mark creating strange cinematic dreams where the players and the rules by which they play are every bit as twisted as the visuals. You know you’ve really made it as a filmmaker when your surname has become an adjective, so it’s hard to refrain from putting the Lynchian label on Darrell Roodt’s 1993 film, To the Death. It has a few of the trademarks -- a woman in peril, fractured identities, criminal elements, strange visuals, and weird speech -- though not with the same intensity or frequency. However, when you train a critical eye on a string of films from a formulaic subgenre during a very specific period of time, viewing them can be tedious, and films sometimes run together. Deviations from the norm, however slight, are always welcome.
To the Death is not unconventional in its narrative and it’s technically the unofficial sequel to the very conventional American Kickboxer 1. Most of the main characters -- and some of the cast -- make return appearances, with slight changes. John Barrett, who played elder kickboxing champion BJ Quinn in the first installment, goes by the name of Rick Quinn here. His girlfriend from the prior story arc, Carol, is now his wife. Denard, previously a flamboyant French kickboxer played by South African Brad Morris, has transformed into an angry French kickboxer played by Morrocan-Belgian Michel Qissi. Thankfully, trouble-making journalist Willard (Le Plat) returns to the fray as a stabilizing force, but then confounds the audience with longer hair and a moustache. It’s like the alternate 1985 from Back to the Future II where everyone is a slightly different version of themselves but even more scientifically dubious!
We pick up just following the events of AKB1, where Quinn has defeated Denard and recaptured the championship. He then chooses to retire, confusing the kickboxing world, vacating the title, and infuriating Denard, who wants nothing more than to beat Quinn in a rematch and regain his pride.
Not one to live out his days as a recluse, Quinn takes a social engagement over lunch with the Le Braque brothers, Dominique (Whitehead) and Roger (Latter). As burgeoning fight promoters, they would like nothing more than to coax Denard out of retirement to join a more exclusive sphere of the fight universe, where fighters perform in front of the elite, the fabulously wealthy, and a chain-smoking ring announcer in clown facepaint. Dominique’s inital proposal of $50K for “one evening, maybe two hours” seems indecent. Uh, what kind of movie is this again? The rich asshole doubles it when Quinn rebuffs, and responds in an ominous tone when Quinn is like, “shove your $100K offer up your asses, but thanks again for the steak salad that I didn’t touch” and leaves in a huff.
The next day, kickboxing journalist and old friend Willard stops by to say goodbye to the retired Quinn. While they’re exchanging pleasantries, Carol starts up the sportscar to pick up some milk or something and it explodes like a jungle hut in a Filipino commando movie. Who would rig Quinn’s car, and why? (Don’t answer, that was purely rhetorical).
Some months later, Quinn has downgraded from a home in the country with no lawn or resale value to a dingy hotel room with no furniture. His alcoholic tendencies have returned and he becomes so out of control during a drink with Willard that the bouncers literally throw him out with the trash. Later on, he drunkenly tries to start a fight with Denard -- the man he blames for Carol’s death -- and ends up in jail. Who bails him out? Willard? Ha! Journalists don’t make any money. In fact, it’s Dominique Le Braque’s foxy wife, Angelica, who springs Quinn. He doesn’t like having any debts, so agrees to a meeting with Dominique to arrange a payment plan that involves fighting with a reasonable interest rate. I wish I’d had the same option to pay back my student loans.
The rules are strict: Quinn has a week to get back into shape before his first fight and he can only wear pleated khakis while doing so. Under no circumstances is he allowed to bang Dominique’s wife even though her seductive gestures are signs of a woman desperate to escape her abusive relationship. Dom tries to communicate this through a joke about frying Rick’s balls and broiling his dick, but he fucks up the delivery so everyone stands around awkwardly afterwards.
It’s rare that I can really enjoy one of these movies if the action isn’t: a) well-done; or b) frequent. There’s not a ton of fighting here, and when it does occur, it’s standard kickboxing movie fight fare but nothing outstanding. But they do have a significant creative flourish. In a normal kickboxing sports movie, the referee is something of a compulsory element for the sake of accuracy. In an underground fighting-to-the-death movie, it’s extraneous -- you don’t need someone to enforce rules when the fighters are trying to kill each other. This film offers a third option: referee as executioner. Once each fight has been decided -- usually by knockout -- Dominique throws a single rose into the ring, and the referee aims a pistol at the downed fighter’s head. Never mind that fatally shooting the fighters who are supposed to kill each other runs contrary to the spirit of death matches. It hammers home Dominique’s god complex, and that’s good enough for me to view the character as a sick bastard and not your standard villain-filler.
Few would deny that Michel Qissi created a memorable and fearsome action villain with Kickboxer’s Tong Po (other than maybe Kamel Krifa, who played the character in Kickboxer 4). That said, replacing Brad Morris as Denard is no easy assignment. Morris’s natural performance captured all the arrogance, flamboyance, and intensity you could want in a chopsocky villain. Qissi’s take on Denard is angry and intense but lacks the more subtle notes. Much of the blame here belongs to the screenwriters for the way they wrote the character, but there was also an opportunity here for Qissi to make the role his own. Aside from one scene in which he brandishes a pitchfork like Ginny Field, there was nothing memorable about Denard in this film.
Perhaps that’s why this movie doesn’t stick out for most people. The things that were memorable about American Kickboxer 1 -- the training sequences, the performances from Brad Morris and John Barrett, and a great fighting villain -- were integral pieces to the whole movie. The memorable things in To The Death -- smoking clowns, unpredictable quips, weird relationship dynamics, alcoholic downfalls, and murderous sleaze -- are cool flourishes but not really essential parts. When you look at all of these low-budget DTV kickpunching films as a whole, it’s rare that the critical components in an individual film -- characters, story, and action -- are done exceptionally well; thus, in the void, the more minor flourises take on some added importance.
A lot of strange and interesting touches snowballed over the runtime and culminated in a fairly enjoyable viewing experience. There were so many, in fact, that I somehow managed to ignore the absence of what usually makes these films enjoyable: great fights (or terrible fights) and lots of technical mishaps. I really enjoyed To the Death. After a too-brief acting career in which he had only a few starring roles, I’m comfortable calling Barrett the “John Cazale of American Martial Arts B-Movies” from this point forward, even though he’s still alive. (If you have better comparisons, please leave them in the comments!)
Limited. Best bet is VHS on Amazon or the usual gray market options.