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
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