Director: Eric Karson
Writer: S. Warren
Cast: Olivier Gruner, Peter Kwong, Tony Valentino, Theresa Saldana, Frank Aragon, Gregory Cruz, Mark Dacascos
Cinema has demonstrated time and time again that it’s tough being the new kid in town. From Yojimbo to Mean Girls, the appearance of a new personality can throw the existing social order into chaos. Allegiances are disrupted, new lines are drawn, and all manner of conflict can arise. If director Eric Karson’s 1990 film Angel Town shows us anything, it’s that being the new kid is a lot easier if you’re a kickboxer.
French fighter and Jalal Merhi favorite Olivier Gruner stars as Jacques, an Olympic athlete, martial artist, and engineering brainiac who moves to Los Angeles to enroll in a graduate-level engineering program at a prestigious school situated near a rough part of the city. Jacques takes a bit too long getting his butt overseas ahead of the semester start -- delaying his departure to visit his dad’s grave site, and apparently have sex with his girlfriend on top of it -- because by the time he arrives in the States, all the grad student housing has filled up.
His search for room and board in the surrounding neighborhood leads him to the home of a single widow, Maria (Saldana), who lives with her teenage son, Martin (Aragon) and elderly mother. It doesn’t take Jacques long to learn of their daily struggles. Gangs go to war with each other in broad daylight. Two “cholo” gang members living in a bus near the house regularly harrass Jacques and Maria. Worse yet, the same gang, run by the villainous Angel (Valentino), is attempting to recruit Martin to join their ranks. Will Jacques be able to save Martin from the clutches of L.A. gang life? Can he work with the allies in the neighborhood -- especially the military vet in the wheelchair who’s always on his front porch staring into the void of urban decay -- to push them out for good? Most important, can he do all of this while maintaining a grade point average sufficient to remain in his master’s degree program? Man, grad school is tough! (AUTHOR’S NOTE: I attended grad school and lived in an overpriced building on a tree-lined street about an eight-minute walk from the subway -- my next-door neighbors were in an all-female bluegrass band).
|Alleged Mark Dacascos appearance where....shit, is that Steven Tyler in the backseat?|
While Karson had done “bigger” b-movies such as The Octagon previously, I think this was an interesting evidential artifact given that L.A. gang films were still very much in their infancy as a cinematic setting (oddly, East L.A. Warriors beat them to the punch about a year earlier). The plot point to transport a French kickboxer to Los Angeles via grad school feels shoehorned, but to his credit, Karson uses this to demonstrate the gentrifying effect that a college campus can have on the surrounding area with some pretty violent set-pieces between gangs and students. It’s not explored with any real depth, but it’s still an idea that I probably should have never had while watching a film like this.
There were at least two huge nostalgic elements that really resonated for me and helped to elevate the film. The first was seeing Big Trouble in Little China veteran Peter Kwong as Henry, Jacques’s friend and local martial arts master. It wasn’t a huge role, but he gets a good amount of dialogue and shows his martial arts skills in a few select scenes, including a fairly good climax. Henry also presides over a dojo that, by all indications, is the same filming location that Corey Yuen used for No Retreat, No Surrender! Usually, I’ll pause a film to take an arbitrary screenshot or look at an usual background player. In this case, I was comparing the aesthetic qualities of two dojo screenshots from two separate films because that’s the kind of obsessive, dedicated, insane, cinematic loser that I am.
While not quite a pre-requisite, real-life badassery was something of a premium feature of direct-to-video martial arts stars of the 1980s and 90s. Few movies featuring Don “The Dragon” Wilson made it through the first eight seconds of the opening credits without mentioning his WKO, ISKA, or WKA kickboxing championships. The same could be said of Jerry Trimble and his PKA and PKC accolades. (Kickboxing affiliations are to Roger Corman movie stars what post-nominal abbreviations are to career academics).
Look around the landscape from that era, and you won’t find many actors better suited to a life in action movies than Olivier Gruner. A former member of the French Marine Nationale with training in scuba diving, skydiving, and climbing, he would go onto various roughneck positions (e.g. bouncer, ski patroller) that paved the way for eventual professional kickboxing glory. “OG,” as he would come to be known, apparently grew tired of these tawdry skills, and added surfer and professionally-licensed helicopter pilot to his credentials later on. By all indications, this was a guy who could do it all, so why didn’t he get bigger?
Similar to fellow European Daniel Bernhardt, who took up the mantle for the Bloodsport franchise, Gruner suffered from a fairly obvious Jean Claude Van Damme problem. His films certainly never aped Van Damme’s output outright, but it’s still hard to look at his leading vehicles without thinking of his mainstream Belgian counterpart. Is there a spot for Gruner in the annals of DTV action cinema without JCVD? I would say yes, but his career arc might look a lot different had the Muscles from Brussels not happened first. Both were French-speaking Shokotan karate and kickboxing practitioners who happened to be born in 1960, both worked with Albert Pyun on dystopian action films, and both displayed a fondness for genre-hopping (though Gruner’s filmography indicates a stronger predilection for science fiction and military themes).
In just his first time out, Gruner is solid. He has an easygoing demeanor and despite his reputation as stiff, his dialogue never felt all that forced; I daresay he comes off as somewhat charming. Karson directs with a steady hand, but the “take back the neighborhood” elements are a bit meandering and the lack of a strong and physical villain detracted from the story a bit. The action scenes are generally pretty good and it’s a logical jump-off point for Gruner first-timers and completists alike.
Used VHS copies on Amazon or good ol' YouTube.
3.5 / 7