Director: H. Kaye Dyal
Writers: H. Kaye Dyal, Arthur Webb
Cast: Frank Zagarino, Glen Eaton, Robert Z’Dar, Marshall Teague, Harold Diamond, Henry Silva, Ron O’Neal, Lisa Aliff, Chuck Connors, Kane Hodder
About eight years ago, I went on vacation in the Caribbean and found myself toweling off on a beach in St. Thomas. It would have been easy enough to drip-dry, because there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and it was at least 90 degrees. I observed a heavy-set man jogging back and forth along the shoreline for at least 45 minutes straight. He was sweating harder than Kobayashi speed-eating ghost peppers. Why exercise so rigorously out here? The lack of shade and the uneven ground of the sand seemed like a surefire recipe for ankle sprains and heat stroke.
Beach training has been a fixture in action cinema ever since Balboa and Creed sprinted and splashed and bro-hugged their way into our hearts back in Rocky III. We’ve actually seen it here at least once before and I have no doubt we’ll see it again, but 1989’s Trained to Kill beach training montage may have shattered the mold with a four-minute sequence focused on the film’s two half-brother heroes. It’s an exceptional mix of varied exercises like abdominal leg throws and push-ups, blatant shirtlessness, an upbeat 1980s rock song, and gripping dramatic heft. Director H. Kaye Dyal uses the song’s bridge not to show his heroes meditating, but rather to show one of the brothers sucking face with his girlfriend.
The brothers find themselves on said beach following their father’s death. Ed Cooper (Connors), fresh off covertly rescuing his twenty-something Cambodian-born son, Sam (Eaton) from the jungles of Southeast Asia, had brought his boy home to sunny California. The escape doesn’t go unnoticed, however, and enemies from Cooper’s past reconvene. Following a coordinated jailbreak from a prison van, drug traffickers Walter Majyk (Z’Dar) and Felix Brenner (Teague) are reunited with cohort Loc Syn (Diamond) and gang leader Ace Duran. Old military buddies with a shared interest in smuggling heroin back to the U.S. during the Vietnam War, they want to get revenge on the man who dropped a dime on them and got Majyk and Brenner imprisoned over a decade ago: Cooper. Their other objective is to steal a small statue believed to be in Sam’s possession -- Duran has it on good authority that it contains diamonds with a black market value of $5 million.
Sam is initially guarded due to his upbringing in a war-torn hellhole, and is just getting to know his new family members, including a brother named Matt (Zagarino). This process lasts all of about six hours before his parents are gunned down (Mrs. Cooper) and set ablaze (Mr. Cooper) during a night-time home invasion by a masked and heavily armed Duran gang. While Matt was busy necking with his girlfriend Jessie (Aliff) off in some dingy back-seat, Sam is knocked unconscious by Loc Syn, but not before revealing the location of the mysterious box he brought to the States.
An emotional funeral at sea finds the brothers at odds. Sam reveals that he vaguely remembers who assaulted the Cooper home, and Matt is pissed that he didn’t divulge this to the authorities. He believes the brothers should tell the cops what they know, let the system work and justice will prevail. Sam, however, convinces Matt that the only way to eliminate trained killers is to go on the attack and fight them like animals. The brothers enlist the help of their father’s alcoholic military buddy, George Shorter (O'Neal) and he promises to train them as quickly as he can, with no assurances of sobriety. Will the brothers be up to snuff the next time they tangle with Duran and his death squad?
The span of film genres represented by this cast is nothing short of incredible. In no particular order, we’re gifted with The Rifleman (American Western TV), Super Fly (blaxploitation), Johnny Cool (crime), Maniac Cop (horror), Jimmy from Road House (action), and even Jason Voorhees (musical romantic comedy). Everyone plays their part to perfection. The brothers are convincing as fiery upstarts hell-bent on vengeance, and Eaton in particular is a lot of fun as Sam. While older brother Matt opts for denim and Hawaiian shirts or no shirt at all, Sam is fond of what appears to be a Member’s Only jacket and a single, spiked fingerless glove. Homeboy won’t even take it off when he’s prepping root veggies for dinner!
The action in this film is diverse and well-executed with a romping brand of energy. We get stalking night-time action, a Japanese-influenced sword fight, wild shoot-outs, rocket launcher attacks, dirtbike chases, dirtbike crashes into cardboard, carsplosions, hand-to-hand fights, throat rips, and shark tooth slashes. During a scene in a Las Vegas casino, Loc Syn gets so lathered up by the appearance of the brothers that he pushes a waitress, knocks out two security guards, and then throws himself off a balcony and goes crashing through a poker table just because it’s more fun than taking the stairs. The climax finds the brothers baited into a complex where Jessie is adorned in ragged clothing, chained to a post-apocalyptic jungle gym, and surrounded by flames. It’s epic on a budget, but epic nonetheless.
It’s impossible to discuss this film without highlighting Loc Syn, played by former Floridian kickboxing champion and Andy Sidaris favorite, Harold Diamond. A former military man by the name of Andrew Wilson, he went insane during his service, fell under the tutelage of Duran, and started calling himself Loc Syn for no reason other than it sounded cool and provided a 50% savings in syllables over his birth name. According to George, Syn’s mind “went south” and he started killing for the pure fun of it. He’ll fill both hands with wakizashis while grinning madly, but would rather rip out your larynx barehanded or clench a shark tooth in his front teeth and slash your throat up close. To his credit, Loc Syn refuses to let his sociopathic tendencies dictate his sartorial choices. He wears an array of threads -- fedoras, steel-tipped cowboy boots, dark shades, and tank tops with designer blazers -- in letting his fashionable freak flag fly. That he has virtually no lines in the movie makes him all the more intimidating; he’s seated between diabetes and high-blood pressure at the table of silent killers.
The rest of the villains are up to the task of providing both comic relief and teeming mounds of exposition. As military major and gang leader Ace Duran, Henry Silva showed up for probably no more than two days of shooting, but spouts enjoyable lines and appears to be having fun with the material. Other than a climactic scene where he rides the skies in a helicopter and rains shotgun blasts down on our heroes, he tends not to get his hands dirty, leaving that work to the aforementioned Loc Syn, and Brenner and Majyk. The latter pair have fantastic chemistry on screen, cracking jokes when they’re not talking shop in the goofiest terms possible. While hatching their plan to take out the Cooper brothers, Majyk strokes his machine gun and coos, “I love this piece, this baby’s real hard,” to which Brenner replies, “All right, let’s rock.” Did I mention that Majyk is stroking said firearm at a strip club in the middle of the day? That the onstage stripper is dancing like she’s at a family member’s wedding and “Don’t Stop Believin’” just came on? And that Kane fucking Hodder is working the door as a mulleted bodyguard?
I can’t say it any more plainly: if you love weird and wild action cinema of the 1980s, you owe it to yourself to find a copy of this film. It falls into that elusive category of “films that must be rewatched dozens of times until your eyes fall out” to gain an appreciation for all the weird character ticks, imperfectly hilarious action scenes, and preposterous situations it has to offer. The cast alone might be the genre movie fan’s wet dream but the movie overall delivers in spades. Highly recommended.
Difficult but not impossible. The film never made the leap to DVD, but VHS copies (and rips, certainly) are out there.
6 / 7