Director: George Chung
Writer: George Chung
Cast: George Chung, Chuck Jeffreys, Stan Wertlieb, Hidy Ochiai, Troy Donahue, Elizabeth Frieje
Take a good, long look at the VHS cover for Karate Cops, or as it was known in Spain, LAS VEGAS, 2 SUPERPOLICIAS (2 SUPERCOPS for you gringos). Not too long, though! The 1988 film’s original title of Hawkeye -- a titular nod to the character played by George Chung -- didn’t provide an adequate amount of deference to the character played by Chuck Jeffreys, so they went with something more encompassing and less likely to be confused for a member of Marvel’s Avengers. A lot of folks have noted that Chuck Jeffreys’s cadence and line delivery bears more than a passing resemblance to that of Eddie Murphy. No one would confuse the two in a visual comparison though. So who exactly did the Spanish distributors think they were fooling with this video cover? Perhaps the better question is: was the cover artist a racist prick who thought all black males in the 1980s all looked the same? Perhaps the best question is: was this movie any good and was there any nudity? In no particular order, maybe and perhaps.
George Chung plays Alex “Hawk” Hawkamoto, a renegade cop, former non-baseball Texas Ranger, and burgeoning black belt in Las Vegas. After a botched negotiation with a group of bank robbers in which Hawk punches a hostage in order to knock out the captor behind him and then leads a violent shoot-out, his superiors and the mayor (Donahue) are in an uproar. In order to put him back in line, they pair him with Charles Wilson (Jeffreys), who just happens to be the city’s most decorated cop. Eager to create a foundation for a lasting friendship, Hawk makes a horribly racist joke and the pair trades punches. INSTANT BUDS!
The reluctant partners have plenty in common: they have girlfriends, they’re cops, and they’re martial artists who enjoy jogging. The reluctant partners are so different: Wilson doesn’t drink, Hawk hates sushi, Wilson abstains from eating red meat. However, they’re united in the mission to solve the murder of a shady middle-man who fell into some bad company. Was he snuffed out by gang leader Sakura (Ochiai)? Was he set up by mob boss Tony (Wertlieb)? What happens to stolen drug money after the police take custody of it and take their requisite 20% skim?
This is probably the greatest film in the history of cinema that uses Comic Sans font during an opening credit sequence shot on VHS. The first 30 minutes of the film contains a botched drug deal, our hero taking a black belt test to honor his YMCA instructor, a bank heist by a femme fatale and incognito Ronnie Lott, expensive vase shooting, racist jokes that would make Don Rickles blush, and a random hostage punching (by the hero). Amazing stuff, but perhaps this pace was unsustainable. Maybe Chung ran out of ideas. Maybe my expectations for “lost” genre gems are unrealistic following the renaissance brought about by movies like Miami Connection. Whatever the reason, the film grinds to a halt as the reluctant partners then attempt to detangle the loose threads of a half-baked police procedural plot. I say “attempt” because I’m still not sure what happened or why characters were doing what they were doing. I do know, however, that the main characters didn’t do nearly enough of what they should have been doing: fighting.
Jeffreys and Chung get to show their action chops in a few isolated scenes, but they’re few and far between. A shoot-out on the Las Vegas strip feels like too little, too late. There’s not really any stand-out stunt work of which to speak, though some of the gun-play is marked by healthy squib usage. I came away feeling really underwhelmed by the action in this action movie, and part of the blame lies with Chung as a director, and Frank Harris as the director of photography. The over-emphasis on comedic and dramatic elements may have been the byproduct of Chung having too many production roles, a lack of willing stunt people, or even Chung using this film as a showcase for his acting skills instead of his action skills. However, what action is on the screen doesn’t flow that well and looks washed out, with poor composition from shot to shot. Some may recall that Harris collaborated with Leo Fong on at least two drab action films in the mid-1980s, and went on to squander a stacked cast for the post-apocalyptic Aftershock (1990). Lo and behold, Fong is an executive producer on this very feature! I’m not sure what I’m trying to say here other than Harris and Fong working together screams “bad juju!” like that creepy antique doll whose eyes follow you around the vintage store when you’re digging for Al Green vinyl.
There are very few actors featured on this site who are as decorated in the world of real-life as George Chung. He was a founding member of the vaunted West Coast Demo Team. He’s a five-time world karate champion. He earned a Super Bowl ring as a martial arts trainer for the 1994 San Francisco 49ers. Currently, he serves as Chief Content Officer for Crunchyroll and has served executive functions for several media companies. Any one of us would be lucky enough to have accomplished one of those things in our lifetimes, yet Chung has compiled all of those accolades and more. He has an easygoing charisma here and while he doesn’t carry the weight of the film, I can imagine he’d have an enjoyable wise-cracking presence in an ensemble cast. That said, he has his fair share of awkward emotional moments, so maybe we’ve discovered the one thing he isn’t good at. Take THAT, wildly successful George Chung!
It’s hard to do action and comedy really well. There are plenty of films and franchises that have made the combination seem easy as pie, but executing either genre element well individually is a feat in itself. The comedy in Karate Cops -- both intentional and unintentional varieties -- is given much more run than the action scenes, often to the detriment of the film. That Chung and Jeffreys were in their physical primes makes the low quotient of action scenes all the more puzzling. Add in a clunky plot and you have a recipe for meh, or maybe blah, depending on where you live. Karate Cops is a rare curiosity for those itching for deep cuts from this subgenre and these actors, but ultimately it can’t overcome its narrative shortcomings and low budget.
To my knowledge, this only made it as far as VHS, and it's a pain in the ass to find. Happy hunting!
3 / 7