4.23.2014

Final Impact (1992)

PLOT: The light heavyweight kickboxing champion of Ohio seeks out his hero for training before a major tournament held in Las Vegas. Can the young upstart save his drunken master from his demons?

Director: Joseph Merhi
Writer: Stephen Smoke
Cast: Michael Worth, Lorenzo Lamas, Kathleen Kinmont, Jeff Langton, Mimi Lesseos, Art Camacho, Gary Daniels, Ian Jacklin, Frank Rivera




PLOT THICKENER
The majority of opening title sequences in direct-to-video fight films are so bland that even the slightest deviation proves compelling. Had 1992’s Final Impact featured two minutes of arbitrary text touting the professional accomplishments of the film’s kickboxing stars over some generic rock track, I wouldn’t have blinked. I may have fallen asleep. I may have started doing semi-nude poom sae along to the beat of the generic rock track. Who the hell knows. It doesn’t matter, because Joseph Merhi gives us something different. In close shots with careful lighting, we get random hands oiling up random bodies. Hands wrapping hands in tape. Hands lacing up bikinis. Fists punching into palms with powdery impact. Hands applying lipstick. Hands tying shoelaces. I thought all of these hands belonged to the same rugged but sensual kickboxing lady, so I was pretty stoked.


It was all for naught, though, because there is no foxy kickboxer with equal attention to proper hand wrapping and well-blended cosmetics. This is the story of Nick Taylor (Lamas), an alcoholic kickboxing ex-champion and his new student, Danny Davis (Worth), a promising youngster in need of mentorship. Their paths cross in what might be the most amazing bar in the history of cinema. Women in nothing but oil and bikinis wrestle each other on one side, while sweaty brutes kickbox the daylights out of each other in a ring on the other side. (Thus, all the random hands in the opening). In between these two attractions, people dance, drink, and socialize. I didn’t see any skee ball or tabletop shuffleboard, but I’m sure they had them in a side room.


Danny is disappointed to find that his kickboxing hero has turned into a drunkard only three years after his title loss to arch-rival Jake Gerrard (Langton). Still, after proving himself through a short exhibition against Gary Daniels during his immaculate ponytail phase, Danny convinces Nick to take him on as a pupil. He spends time training at Nick’s home, in the patient company of his girlfriend Maggie (Kinmont), and she’s suspicious of her boyfriend’s intentions. Is Nick using Danny to win fight money? For a self-esteem boost? Or to take out his rival, Gerrard, and regain his past glory?

If you’ve been following this site for a while, you’ll notice that this is our first foray into the work of Lorenzo Lamas. For fans of American chopsocky, this might constitute an egregious omission but at this point, I have Lorenzo-phobia deep in the bone. First, I hated the Renegade television series. Hated it. There was also a fairly well-documented incident in which Lamas broke Avedon’s nose during a shoot for the former’s self-defense video and didn’t handle it with much professionalism. (Considering the results, it was for the best that he removed himself from the production). Avedon has great stories, and he’s been a class act in all of my interactions with him. He was one of the best screen fighters of his era, and I like the guy. If you’re a huge fan of Larry Bird, can you also be a fan of Bill Laimbeer? Dr. J? If you’re being real about it, probably not. To be fair, if Lamas could dunk a basketball from the free-throw line, I might feel more conflicted. Few actors other than Michael J. Fox can get that kind of hang-time.


That said, his involvement in the film’s pivotal restaurant scene is cinematic gold. Boozed to the gills, Nick stumbles over and confronts Gerrard (and the ex-wife his rival married, played by Mimi Lesseos) during a contentious altercation that leaves everyone feeling weird. Everything about this 50 seconds of the film is brilliant, from the bolo tie and Gerrard dressed in an outfit straight out of Night at the Roxbury, to Nick’s apparent self-satisfaction after calling his ex-wife a whore during a totally childish exchange. And what is the mythical Neon Graveyard to which Gerrard refers? (For the record, we find out later). Watch below for just a taste.



As the old cliche goes, the enemy is within. To be clear, Jeff Langton does his best to play Jake Gerrard as an obnoxious Jersey-tinged meathead, but he simply doesn’t have enough screentime or good lines to cement himself as a memorable villain. His fighting is vicious at the appropriate times, but Langton also lacks the look and physical stature to provide the audience with any sense of awe about his skills. We know the role of Gerrard is pivotal in Nick’s story arc because of the alcoholic tailspin that results from their fight. Thus, the real villain in this story is Nick’s rampant alcoholism. This character flaw makes him selfish, volatile, and visibly hammered for the vast majority of the film. We’ve seen the alcoholic mentor trope plenty -- in everything from King of the Kickboxers to Breathing Fire -- but Merhi really pushes it front and center as a major story element. Tequila with a chaser of blind vengeance is an especially dangerous mix.

Despite a capable fight choreographer in Eric Lee, I had low expectations about the action scenes in this film considering the long history of humdrum depictions of legitimate kickboxing tournaments. For the most part, there’s nothing here that you haven’t seen in dozens of films just like it. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the use of genuine psychology in the fighting itself. Several of the fighters have distinctive styles -- Gerrard is a roughneck brawler who aims for vital organs, and crowd favorite Jacky Clark is a flashy show-off -- and Danny is positioned as the well-rounded fighter who can effectively counter each of them. During breaks in between rounds, Nick relays his thoughts and then Danny deploys the strategy to successful results. I’m not sure what the correct countermove was for Gerrard’s signature “trap opponent in corner, pick up both of his legs and start headbutting him in the pelvis” attack, but Danny avoids it entirely.


This is the second time in three PM Entertainment films that Michael Worth played the trainee to a mentor on the hard sauce (see, To Be the Best). In that film, he got lost in the shuffle due to a large ensemble cast. Here, both his character and his performance are more interesting and layered. Worth captures Danny’s alternating streaks of cocky and naive convincingly, and he brings a palpable energy to the fight scenes. More than that, his engaged demeanor provides a nice counterbalance to Lamas’s cool and detached line delivery. Which is to say, sort of drunk. 

VERDICT
While not exactly an original work, Final Impact is a tournament fight film with decent in-ring action, a couple of good performances, and a lot of alcohol consumption, all under the bright lights of Vegas. While this was marketed as a Lorenzo Lamas film, it works better as a solid debut vehicle for Worth, playing a character trying to overcome his selfish mentor’s self-destructive bullshit. Recommended for fans of Lamas who would rather watch him drink than fight.

AVAILABILITY
Netflix, Amazon, YouTube.

4 / 7

4.13.2014

Angelfist (1993)

PLOT: When her kickboxing covert agent sister is mysteriously murdered in the Philippines, an American cop heads overseas to bring the killers to justice. Contrary to popular belief, justice is not a hip upscale Manila restaurant, but rather a fair and reasonable application of law.

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






PLOT THICKENER
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.

VERDICT
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.

AVAILABILITY
Angelfist is at the ready on DVD or VHS.

4 / 7


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