Director: Cirio Santiago
Writer: Anthony L. Greene
Cast: Cat Sassoon, Melissa Moore, Michael Shaner, Roland Dantes, Cristina Portugal, Tony Carreon, Henry Strzalkowski, Joseph Zucchero, Jim Moss
There are few performances in film that can be described as truly chameleonic. Few characters are conceptualized in such a way as to grant us access to the various layers of their personalities. Denis Lavant’s Monsieur Oscar in Holy Motors comes to mind, as does Joaquin Phoenix in The Master. After viewing the Corman-produced, Santiago-directed 1993 action film, Angelfist, I think we can add Cat Sassoon and her character of Kat Lang to that same elite group. Over the course of roughly 80 minutes, she encompasses a wide variety of flavors and colors. She’s a cop, she’s a kickboxer. She’s white as a sheet, she’s tanned to the color of an indoor basketball. She’s dressed in her Muay Thai best, she looks like a backup dancer for Paula Abdul.
A rugged and experienced cop, Kat is cleaning up the mean streets of Los Angeles when she receives word that her kickboxing sister, Kristie (Birzag) has been murdered in Manila. Kristie captured the murder of a U.S. military man on film, and a terrorist group called the Black Brigade responded a little harshly. One airplane transition later, and Kat is knocking down doors and beating up random Filipinos in a search for answers. The local Manila police are useless and paranoid, and the U.S. embassy is no help at all due to constant protests and pressure from the local population.
With the assistance of a shallow himbo nicknamed Alcatraz (Shaner), Kat talks her way into a meeting with her sister’s former fight trainer, Bayani (Dantes). Only after winning his respect during a sparring contest is she able to set the wheels in motion for a break in the case. In order to uncover more solid leads to chase, she enters the local ladies karate tournament in which her sister took part. Upon joining their ranks, she not only catches the attention of her sister’s friend, Lorda (Moore), but also last year’s champion and secret brigadier, the standoffish, Bontoc (Portugal). Will Kat avenge her sister's death? Who are her true enemies and allies? Why do the fight organizers call this thing a "kubate" instead of a "kumite?" And why does Kat's skin tone vary so wildly by time of day and lighting?
So, about those action scenes. The tournament fighting is marked by extremely repetitive strikes and an almost complete disregard for defense and blocking. Moore and Sassoon, in particular, are guilty of awkward fight stances in which they curl their arms up close to their bodies while kicking, almost in an effort to conceal something -- a strange choice given the sheer amount of toplessness throughout much of the film. Cirio makes sure to combine said toplessness with an actual fight, putting Kat in the crosshairs of would-be assassins who raid Alcatraz’s apartment as she’s fresh out of the shower. In the absence of technical sheen, the stunt players sell HUGE for Sassoon and others. Enemies go screaming and flailing through walls and tables. Any piece of furniture that isn’t nailed down gets incorporated and smashed to pieces.
Sassoon gets all of the bits to put her in position to win our hearts and look awesome. Our introduction to the Kat character involves her jumping through a window with an uzi to waste a bunch of drug dealers. She wins the respect of Bayani by whooping him in an eskrima sparring match. She also takes a three-story fall from an apartment window that sees her smash through multiple levels of scaffolding to the street below. No one will ever mistake her for Moon Lee or Karen Sheperd in terms of ballsy action scenes, but I’ll put it this way: I’d wear a t-shirt with the visage of a growling Kat Lang for virtually any occasion. Even if it was a tank top!
It’s impossible to discuss this film without noting the untimely death of its star. Sassoon had a purported five-picture contract with Roger Corman, but was unable to see it through (I’m still anxious to see her Bloodfist franchise appearances). Discarding the minor transgressions of occasional duckface and dated wardrobe, most would agree that whether it’s an awkward love scene, a rompy fight, or long shots of her smoking a cigarette, Sassoon brings a palpable zest to the film. She’s clearly committed to this role and she got the memo about its tone; that effort is observable and lasting. Given the timing of her death in 2002, it’s difficult to say whether she would have weathered the erosion of the DTV action market that affected so many other stars in the early 2000s. Still, Angelfist is a unique time capsule that features Sassoon at her best, which is to say fierce, tanned, and mysteriously shiny.
Knowing that Corman took an active interest in creating “feminist exploitation films” -- using female protagonists as both asskickers and objects of lust -- I’m interested to know if viewers feel that Angelfist achieves this odd label. I’m undecided. The ladies here fight and snarl and save the day, but they also stand around awkwardly and navigate detachable shower heads over their nude bodies during inexplicable transition scenes. They’re terrorized by captors and pushed bare chest-first into blocks of ice, but they also deliver dialogue that earns the film a passing grade on the Bechdel test. Is Bontoc considered a villain because she’s part of a terrorist network, or because she never disrobes? There’s some serious contradictions at work here and I’m frankly not intelligent enough to sort it out. Maybe the Internet’s first aspirational expert in the subgenre of nude kickboxing movies, Keith over at Teleport City, can render a decision on this. Inquiring minds want to know.
Despite its flaws -- acting and originality among them -- Angelfist is a very entertaining film. It observes the loose but effective “action beat” rule where *something* interesting happens approximately every 10 minutes. (Even if it does nothing whatsoever to push the story forward or distract us from the arbitrary nudity). Despite her limitations as a peformer, Sassoon is ferocious and convincing as an action movie heroine, and the stunt team makes everyone look good. A fine effort from Cirio Santiago and something of an unheralded gem from the Concorde-New Horizons canon.
Angelfist is at the ready on DVD or VHS.
4 / 7