Director: Doo-yong Lee, Scott Thomas
Writers: Lin Ada, Will Gates
Cast: Sam Jones, Jun Chong, Phillip Rhee, Mako, Bill Erwin, Linda Blair, Gustav Vintas, Rebecca Ferratti, Bill Wallace, Ken Nagayama
Sometime after the release of the iPhone, David Lynch sat down to record some bonus content for the special edition release of his film, Inland Empire. During that session, Lynch made a remark that people who watch films on mobile devices like their “fucking telephone” are cheating themselves out of the cinematic experience and need to “get real.” Some clever soul set this clip to music and uploaded it to YouTube as an iPhone commercial parody, and the rest is viral video history. I’m proud to say that I’ve never tried watching a full-length movie on my fucking telephone, and didn’t even purchase a smartphone until 2011. I have, however, watched a grainy VHS rip of 1988’s Silent Assassins on the 2.2-inch screen of a 5th-generation iPod Nano while enduring a five-hour bus ride somewhere on I-95. Sorry, David -- I was desperate.
DTV action films of the 1980s that dared to combine scientific elements with espionage often involved stolen microfilm, black market nuclear material, or secret formulas for dangerous but ambiguous weaponry. This film falls into the latter camp, where an elderly biochemist, Dr. London (Erwin), is kidnapped for his knowledge of a secret chemical formula that could be exploited for germ warfare. The abductors include a sultry killing machine, Miss Amy (Ferratti) and an ex-CIA agent named Kendrick (Vintas) along with an army of masked foot soldiers who may or may not be Iga ninja clan members. This lethal group gives no fucks, as evidenced by their snatching of not only London, but the small, Asian, and completely unrelated girl who he happens to be holding at the time of the abduction in a parking garage elevator. Let this be a lesson to all of you in the scientific community: if you’re working on anything remotely interesting to our nation’s enemies, they will not be deterred by your use of children as human shields. And don’t ask to hold people’s kids if they’re old enough to walk, it’s friggin creepy.
In hot pursuit of Kendrick is Sam Kettle (Jones), a wisecracking everyman cop who very nearly busted him just days before, during a sting operation. How did Kendrick get away? He ran to a warehouse pier and threw a baby in the water before boarding a speedboat. Why was a baby hanging out on a dock in the middle of the night, you ask? Who knows, but like any other good cop, Kettle dove in after it for the save. Upon discovering the baby was a doll, our hero actually yelled, “IT’S A DOLL!” Kendrick responded by cackling and firing his gun into the air as his boat sped away, because he’s the villain in a 1988 DTV action movie. Predictable.
The flipside to Kettle’s cocky can-do attitude is occasional meatheaded incompetence, so he obviously can’t be trusted to do things alone. He’s joined by Jun Kim (Chong) the distressed uncle of the kidnapped little girl, and he wants nothing more than to rescue her. This leads to some strange moments between the two men: Kim hides out in Kettle’s jeep, shows up randomly at police HQ for progress reports, and at one point finds himself sitting between Kettle and his wife, Sara (Blair) as Kettle eats a dinner of raw hot dogs and peanut butter while arguing about his increasing involvement in the case. When Sam and Sara get up from the couch to giggle and play grab-ass (they’re childless, so still having fun!) Kim discovers the majesty of heavily processed meat product combined with peanut butter. The heroes are eventually joined by Bernard (Rhee), the wise-ass son of a reformed Yakuza gangster and art collector (Mako). Bernard is also a Kendo instructor who is consistently flanked by at least one pretty, bleach-blonde California girl at any time.
In terms of production value, technical competence, and overall narrative coherence, this was a major step up for co-stars Philip Rhee and Jun Chong from their previous collaboration, L.A. Streetfighters. Multiple directors is usually an indicator of a glorious mess (see: Breathing Fire) but directors Scott Thomas and Doo-Yong Lee do a solid job. I’ll dock them a few points for some bad lighting choices in the climax, but they otherwise keep the action moving at a good clip and utilize varied settings. I was surprised to see legitimate character development in Bernard, turning from an obnoxious and flippant California ladies man to a vengeful whirlwind through metered motivating incidents. It should also be mentioned that while the onscreen chemistry between Chong and Jones isn’t great, the character dynamic was well-formed -- Kettle’s cocky, rapid-fire chatter plays well with Kim’s more downbeat demeanor. You could just as easily see a guy like Roddy Piper sliding into the Kettle role, but perhaps the world was not ready for a Piper-Chong collaboration. Humanity is so backwards, at times.
The action, for the most part, is well-executed and everyone gets an opportunity to shine. There are shoot-outs, foot chases, vehicle chases, smashed windows, rooftop jumps, 'splosions, and plenty of hand to hand combat. Chong and Rhee, as fight choreographers, make great use of the production’s willing stuntmen and unlimited inventory of breakaway furniture. No book case or end table was safe! Rhee, in particular, has a memorable scene in a public bathroom against two goons that leaves no stall divider untouched. Thankfully, no one was taking a shit at the time, so this saved everyone from that unique brand of action movie embarrassment.
Oddly, this is the last cinematic appearance from Chong we’ll cover, and he goes out on a high note with his best (dramatic) performance. (Amazing titles aside, 2006’s Maximum Cage Fighting and 1976’s Bruce Lee Fights Back from the Grave are decidedly non-canon in our theme of Western martial arts b-movies of the 1980s and 1990s). Despite less than a half-dozen acting roles, Master Chong’s contributions to cinema as a martial artist can’t be overstated: his pupils have included action genre mainstays such as Phillip and Simon Rhee, Loren Avedon, Thomas Ian Griffith, Lorenzo Lamas, and even Sam Jones himself. Regardless of how you feel about them as dramatic actors, that’s an impressive crop of on-screen fighters to have helped to elevate to lead star status. His crowning cinematic achievement is probably the amazing gangland shit-show L.A. Streetfighters, truly one of our pantheon films. So we bid adieu to Jun Chong, a man who was so much more than jump kicks and an awesome moustache, but also a teacher, learner, and master of the fighting arts.
On a second watch at a more reasonable resolution, I really enjoyed Silent Assassins. The plot and reliance upon exposition is a little hamfisted at times, but it’s a breezy 90 minutes of enjoyable action and it features one of those b-movie casts that was only possible during the golden age of direct-to-video. While it’s not quite a hidden gem, Rhee, Jones, and Chong completists will definitely want to bump this up in their respective queues.
Used VHS and non-R1 DVD copies are available on Amazon, but it’s also on YouTube in full. Not to be confused with Godfrey Ho’s Ninja: Silent Assassin.
4 / 7