Chinatown Connection (1990)

PLOT: Two cops try to figure out who’s behind a lethal supply of poisoned cocaine. Hijinks ensue because they're ethnically different or something.

Director: Jean Paul Oulette
Writer: Jean Paul Oulette
Cast: Lee Majors II, Yung Henry Yu (as Bruce Ly), Fitz Houston, Deron McBee

In the world of action cinema, Art Camacho casts a long and impressive shadow. A student of Eric Lee, Camacho rose the ranks from actor to action choreographer and finally got his chance in the director’s chair for legendary studio PM Entertainment. His is a legitimately cool story. Seriously! Have a read and get inspired. Before he could run his own set or show Ja Rule how to fight convincingly, though, he had to play bit parts in films like 1990’s Chinatown Connection.

Warren Houston (Lee Majors II) is a cop on the edge of unemployment after he destroys a church during a tense hostage situation. His dickhead lieutenant pisses all over the cocaine cache he recovered and the innocent hostages he saved in the incident, and puts him on a hot case with a new partner. The case? Figure out who’s behind the toxic street product causing a rash of cocaine-induced deaths. The partner? A detective named Chan (Yu) who runs an anger-management martial arts course for cops -- the brooding Estes (Camacho) is his latest student -- and prefers punches and kicks over using his firearm. Houston initially refuses, but learns in time that Chan’s relaxed veneer is a cover for honed street smarts, vicious fighting ability, and a probable love of baking.

Sometimes we trashy action fans sit around and wonder why certain films never made the format jump to DVD. This film is a perfect example for why that is: like other films similar in scope, size, and execution, it’s not good and rife with missteps. This film was originally slated for Ninjavember coverage, but I had to drop it off entirely because the sole ninja invades Houston’s home at night only to attack his furniture and personal belongings without engaging the target in combat. The rest of the film’s “ninjas” are just brawny dudes in balaclavas and t-shirts with the sleeves cut off. I mean, what the fuck is that? There are occasional flourishes -- a crackling line of dialogue, a decent supporting character performance, and Deron McBee (Malibu!) among them -- but this is the sort of film that merely exists and doesn’t make a serious effort to engage you on any meaningful level. Come to think of it, Chinatown Connection is a lot like my uncle Dave. Year in and year out, the guy just shows up to the holiday party, eats all the shrimp, and leaves without much more than a “hey, how’s it going?”

Many of my friends have quipped at one time or another that for them, cheese is “like crack.” Between the heart palpitations, loss of appetite, and aggressive behavior, a nice smoked gouda or baked brie certainly yields similar effects as the popular cocaine offshoot. In depicting a factory in which coke is smuggled in actual 10-pound wax cheese wheels, no film has ever laid this comparison bare quite so blatantly. It was a clever way to rework a tired action movie cliche that spoke deeply to me as a recovering cheese-lover. I assumed that Oulette’s French roots might have factored into this choice, so you can imagine my surprise when I discovered he was born in Boston, a city known more for its clam chowder than its clam cheese (if there is such a thing). That’s what I get for being vaguely racist.

Playing the treacherous Tony North is Fitz Houston, an actor, minister, flugelhornist, and owner of one of the great multifaceted IMDb biographies in history. For me, he’s also the best performer in the film. From a physical standpoint, Houston is a cross between Predator-era Carl Weathers (e.g. muscles and great polo shirts) and former pro wrestler Norman Smiley (e.g. unfortunate pattern baldness with mustache). This great look is trumped only by his ability to destroy wooden boards strategically placed on end tables. While one might think this would make him an ace for action scenes, he’s fond of low kicks to the shins, a tendency unbefitting of a man of his stature. Houston brings attitude to his line delivery and charisma to his interactions with the other actors, and this really distinguishes him from the rest of the cast, most of whom act like they’re placing orders for sandwiches at a corner deli.

Maybe it was the garden salad without dressing I ate for dinner, but the taste this movie left in my mouth was dull as dishwater. (Ever tasted dishwater? Shit is GROSS). The action scenes are marked by clunky choreography, the story is half-baked, and most of the actors seem to have left their powers of inflection at home. This may have been a case where my expectations were inflated by a trailer that portended something fun and trashy but turned out to be much too talky. Recommended only for Art Camacho completists, and viewers for whom the East-meets-West reluctant partner dynamic never gets old.

A tough get. I watched this on VHS, so finding a used copy on Amazon or eBay is your best bet.

2.5 / 7


Ninja III: The Domination (1984)

PLOT: A utilities worker and part-time aerobics instructor encounters a dying ninja and is entrusted with his sword. However, the weapon is a conduit through which the ninja’s evil spirit takes possession of her body and mind. Based on what I can only assume was a true story.

Director: Sam Firstenberg
Writer: James R. Silke
Cast: Lucinda Dickey, Sho Kosugi, Jordan Bennett, James Hong, David Chung

In a modern-day film climate saturated with sequels, prequels, and reboots of nearly every genre flavor, it’s easy to forget that the sequel trend really began its upward trajectory in the late 1970s and early 1980s (scroll down to the third chart here for the grisly evidence). Action and adventure films were (and continue to be) the genres least resistant to retreads, and low-budget franchises were no more insulated from the phenomenon than their big-budget brethren. Fortunately, the “ninja trilogy” films from the Golan-Globus era of Cannon Films handled this in the best way possible, by keeping a few recognizable elements (e.g. the ninja archetype and Sho Kosugi) and turning over the characters, stories, and settings. The results throughout this trilogy were stylistically distinct, tonally all over the map, and as Ninja III: The Domination proves, full of ridiculous fun.

Christie (Dickey, of Breakin’ fame) is your typical all-American girl. Like many women in their 20s, she works as a utility repair person by day and teaches aerobics classes by night. She loves dance pop music, arcade games, and denim. Her dislikes include killing people, guys with hairy backs, and V8 drinks. However, after a chance encounter out in a field with a dying ninja (Chung) who recently killed  a scientist and his wife, several security workers, and dozens of local police, Christie becomes possessed by his spirit after taking his sword as a gift (we know this because of the strong gusts of wind). Very rapidly, her life begins to change.

After giving a statement to police, Christie returns to civilian life but is harassed by a detective named Billy (Bennett) for a date. Initially resistant, she’s repulsed by his piggish quips and unhealthy fondness for soft drinks and coffee. Later, though, she notices him taking her aerobics class and she begins to warm up to him, despite his luxurious coat of back hair. Their first date includes an awkward but nutritious V8 bodyshot (blech) and Billy spends the night (we can reasonably infer sex or at least some heavy petting). With Billy fast asleep, Christie unconsciously commits the first in a series revenge killings against his various partners on the police force; many of them were involved in the fatal shooting of the ninja. Over time, fog gathers, swords glow, heads roll, arcade cabinets shoot laser beams, and Billy is helpless to save his new squeeze from the evil overtaking her. A mysterious martial artist from Japan, Yamada (Kosugi), may be the only person who can save Christie from a terrible fate (e.g. jail, death, or Billy’s back hair).

Following the wild action of Revenge of the Ninja, one might reasonably expect that Cannon Films would ratchet up the action quotient, especially with Sho Kosugi back in the fold as both a main actor and fight choreographer. However, the action is mainly relegated to the film’s opening, which plays out like a Grand Theft Auto crime spree on a golf course, and its conclusion, which finds Yamada first chasing Christie around a dilapidated house before battling the Black Ninja that had been inhabiting her. Peppered throughout are the requisite vengeful stalk-and-kill scenes, and one scene at a police funeral that properly sells Christie’s full transformation into the Black Ninja. The choreography isn’t super complex, but each action scene brings the same level of energy, creativity, and solid stuntwork you’d expect from the Firstenberg/Kosugi pairing.

Perhaps the filmmakers felt that because they’d set the action bar so high with Revenge… they were liberated to try something different with the ninja construct and go in more of a hybridized direction. With allusions to prior ninja movies, horror tropes, and even Dickey’s involvement with the Breakin’ franchise, Ninja III might be the most “Cannon” of Cannon Films’ 1980s output, and this special blend is one of the big reasons its popularity persists three decades later. Many will dock it points for its dated visual effects and inconsistent cohesion to the possession plot-line (when Christie pours V8 down her cleavage and has the hots for a dude with terrible back-hair, is it *the ninja spirit* doing these things?) but doing so misses the point. At its core, Ninja III is and was a celebration of everything that was fun and ridiculous about 1980s genre film.

This film packs so much weird fun. With the exception of its insane book-ends, Ninja III is a little light on quality action but it’s an easy thing to overlook against the backdrop of a ridiculous plot, wacky effects, and several Deloreans’ worth of 1980s film tropes. Tonally, it’s a strange concluding chapter in Cannon Films’ unofficial ninja trilogy, but I love it with the emotional warmth normally reserved for a cute dog or a Boglin still in the box. Recommended.

Netflix, Amazon and eBay can all get you sorted, but Shout! Factory’s release is the edition worth targeting.

5.5 / 7


Ninja Phantom Heroes (1987)

PLOT: Fighters which turn into Ninjas just by crossing their arms, a marriage which people do not approve and Chinese businessmen who stand around laughing and plotting something sinister, yet nothing sinister happens. Confused? I know I am!

Director: Godfrey Ho
Writer: Duncean Bauer
Cast: Jeff Houston, John Wilford, Christine Wells, Glenn Carson, George Dickson.

There was a time in the 1980s and early '90s where ninja flicks were popular. We were exposed to cheesy but wonderfully choreographed pieces, and every time you watched one of these films you were hoping Sho Kosugi would be the lead actor. Ninja Phantom Heroes is not one of those films.

WARNING: I do not know any of the character's names, besides that of side characters who do not feature in the film for more than a couple of minutes. I guess Godfrey Ho thought it was a great idea and "innovative" to not give the characters actual names. Apologies for the confusion that is about to happen...I am still confused.

There are all kinds of craptacular masterpieces out there, and I can tolerate a lot of them, but this -- it REALLY tried my patience. When a film doesn't include the character's names, leaves no explanation for why they are doing anything, and not a single scene connects to one another, it makes you question if the film is going to get better-- this doesn't. Firstly, two caucasian martial artists meet in Asia to discuss -- OK, you know what? I'm not actually sure what -- because IT WASN'T MAKING SENSE! Then we skip to a Chinese couple who are arguing about going horse riding. And yes, they do go horse riding. Jump to another scene, Asian businessmen standing around in tuxedos and laughing really obnoxiously, and they are trying to plot something, but I don't even think *they* know what. And inserted in between were random cut-aways of ninjas training. For what? I am still not sure. Are you lost yet? I was lost at the 55-minute mark.

While sitting at that 55-minute mark, I contemplated the events that led me up to choosing this film. I was full of hope for schlock but so-bad-it's-good schlock. After having it on pause and venting out my frustration by swearing at my TV, I decided to keep going. The highlight of the film was seeing the two caucasian martial artists fighting in some random forest (not sure how they got there by the way). This part gave me hope because out of the blue they started fighting the so-called bad guy, who looked like the love child of Dolph Lundgren and Matthias Hues. And just as they started fighting, they crossed their arms and all of a sudden were dressed as ninjas! WHERE THE HELL DID THIS COME FROM? HOW DID THIS HAPPEN? EXPLAIN THIS TO ME! GIVE ME A DAMN SUBTITLE ON THE SCREEN, OR HAVE A CHEESY VOICE OVER, I DON'T CARE BUT PLEASE START TO MAKE SENSE...sorry I don't mean to yell but GOD DAMN! The choreography is average at best, but it has definitely been sped up, which does not translate well on screen. If anything it looks like a Benny Hill re-run.

Then we jump back to the Asian couple, (oh, by the way, they got married, didn't see a wedding, but it freakin' happened! Apparently they think they were only married because the husband was after his new wife's money -- why? IT'S NEVER EXPLAINED? How the hell did we get to this part? I don't know...I am so close to crying in a corner while in a strait-jacket all because it's so hard to explain this damn film.  Then we have a cut-away scene to random guys in uniforms -- I'm going to take a stab at it, and say FBI or something similar. Either way, they are discussing a certain character -- not sure who -- but this character managed to kill two million people. Yes, TWO FREAKIN' MILLION. It's not explained how or why. They then continue on discussing how it will cause chaos if they don't step in.

OK, stop right there a second. They think if they don't stop him now it will turn into chaos? The guy has killed two million people already, and only now is it chaotic? You would think these guys would have stepped in at least in the one hundred thousand mark.I guess that isn't chaotic enough.

By this point, we are reaching the climax of the film. And still nothing makes sense. Do the three plot lines come together in the final moments, finally giving the film the tiniest of redeeming qualities? No, they do not. People are hit by cars in one scene, and in another the ninjas fight near a cliff and what an underwhelming fight it is. Then it just ends. Not a single thing is tied up. And do I care? No, I don't care because at this point I am dialling my phone and telling the men in white coats to come and give me a lobotomy.

If you know Godfrey Ho you would know by now he is a director known for a couple of things. He directs ninja films...A LOT of ninja films, he works under pseudonyms such as Bruce Lambert, and lastly a lot of his films are old stock footage which he pastes together with the hope they all blend together nicely. I have a sneaky suspicion that this is one of THOSE films.

Godfrey Ho has a deep passion for ninjas and everything martial arts, and it's a real shame that he hasn't translated that passion on screen effectively very often. His films definitely do have a following out there, because a lot of people like the fact that he uses different stock footage to create a unique film, and you gotta give him that -- his films sure are unique.

I had hopes that this film would be fun, schlocky and make me laugh. Unfortunately it did none of those things. For anyone who has a specific martial art boxset  called 100 Greatest Martial Arts Classics by Mill Creek Entertainment, this will not be under Ninja Phantom Heroes but instead be under the name of Ninja Empire - another Godfrey Ho film which it often gets confused with. So for the people who own that boxset, for your own sanity do NOT turn on the film Ninja Empire.

Does it even matter? 



Revenge of the Ninja (1983)

PLOT: After the majority of his family is murdered by ninjas, a Japanese ninjutsu master relocates to the United States with his young son, and partners with his American friend to start an art gallery. How will this single dad raise his son while trying to juggle dating, American tax codes, betrayal, and a pretentious art scene?

Director: Sam Firstenberg
Writer: James R. Silke
Cast: Sho Kosugi, Arthur Roberts, Kane Kosugi, Ashley Ferrare, Keith Vitali, Mario Gallo, Virgil Frye

There are a lot different angles a film can use to approach the ninja archetype. In many Western films, the non-ninja characters are clueless and dumbfounded by what they previously considered to be the stuff of foreign legend. In other cases, the ninja is a superhuman alter ego shrouded in secrecy. For the majority of films though -- especially in the 1980s -- I’d submit that the ninja is used as a disposable henchman (e.g. action movie window dressing). Save for its brutal opening scene, Sam Firstenberg’s 1983 film Revenge of the Ninja instead treats the ninja as a sort of weekend athletic hobby like indoor climbing or squash. (e.g. “Bob, I had no idea you were a ninja. Want to join my co-ed intramural league?”) It’s hard to argue with this casual approach since the results are so awesome and ridiculous.

Cho Osaki (Kosugi) has been fending off ninjas for most of his life in Japan, and the latest encounter finds him arriving home just moments too late. His entire family has been slaughtered by ninja assholes, with the exception of his mother and his infant son. His American friend, Braden (Roberts) convinces him to escape the chaos of Japan and emigrate to the United States for a new start. Cho obliges, and a few years later we see the humble beginnings of the Japanese art gallery -- creepy miniature dolls, above all -- that he runs with the backing of Braden and his assistant, Kathy (Ferrare).

Cho’s son, Kane (Kane Kosugi) is struggling to adapt to the American way of life as a kid. He has occasional skirmishes with older neighborhood boys, who he thoroughly destroys in fights because he’s good at martial arts and using fistfuls of dirt to blind them. Cho admonishes his son for inviting the conflict but simultaneously teaches him appreciation for the traditions of ninjutsu. When Kane’s emerging skill is combined with his age-appropriate curiosity and a bit of clumsiness, he makes a powdery discovery in the art gallery that totally unravels the Osakis’ peaceful life in their adopted homeland. Before you know it, people are catching shurikens to the dome in broad daylight, captives are being boiled alive in hot tubs, and the Italian mafia is reinforcing unfortunate ethnic stereotypes every fifteen minutes. If Cho is going to survive a fresh round of chaos, he may need to resurrect his ninja past and accept help from his sparring partner, Dave (Vitali). Dave’s a nice guy.

This film succeeds where others have waffled or failed outright in the most important element of the ninja movie: wild, unhinged action. From the brutal opening to the gushing conclusion, the action scenes here are creative, strange, and spectacular. It features solid sword-fight choreography, one of the best rooftop climax fights in the history of action cinema, and my favorite interior moving vehicle fight this side of The Raid 2. Ninjas throw fire, disappear in smoke, and flip effortlessly between buildings. Kane Kosugi and Ashley Ferrare have a scuffle that I didn’t totally hate, and even the octogenarian grandma gets some time to shine. When the shot selection is iffy or the hand-to-hand choreography is less than crisp, there’s still an element of energy and fun in every frame. Of the three originals in the Cannon Films “ninja trilogy," this features the best action scenes, by far.

This film was also the blueprint for future Kosugi works that lay waste to the family structure of whichever character he happened to be playing. In 1985’s Pray for Death, his character’s family is tormented and one family member is killed. In 1987’s Rage of Honor, his character’s friend is killed. Notice a consistent theme? Getting involved with Sho Kosugi on screen in any familiar or friendly capacity could get you seriously fucked up. Gordon Hessler -- director of the two aforementioned films -- seemed to especially enjoy putting Kosugi’s characters through the emotional wringer, and we’re forced to wonder why. If Kosugi ate the last donut in catering, I get it. If he won Hessler’s last twenty bucks in a poker game, I can see the need for some form of retribution. But if the thought process was “how else are we going to generate audience sympathy for this average actor with amazing hair who speaks stiff English other than to slaughter the people he loves the most?” that’s a seriously lazy and cold-hearted approach to character development.

Other than the occasional beer before liquor or undercooked pork, I’m not one for risky behavior, but I’ll go out on a limb here: the makers of the classic 1985 boxing game Punch-Out!! stole Braden’s stilted cackles for the Bald Bull character’s victory taunt. Don’t believe me? Check out this brief side-by-side comparison.

Still not convinced? The NSA has some sophisticated audio analysis and visualization software that I’m sure would reveal a match. Tweet at them. (Or maybe don’t -- I’m pretty sure you get put on a “list”). In all seriousness, the juxtaposition is a pretty close call. Close enough to keep me up late at night for days until I finally woke up sweating like Billy Blanks with a eureka moment that will probably be the only lasting observation of anything I’ll ever write.

For me, Revenge of the Ninja is the measuring stick by which all other Western ninja films are evaluated. Some folks swear by the first two American Ninja films for nostalgic reasons, I have a strange fondness for Pray for Death, and others might prefer the technical polish of recent Adkins-Florentine collaborations -- Kane Kosugi’s involvement with the latter provides a compelling link to his father’s work -- but this film ticks nearly all the boxes on the cult action film checklist (e.g. gore, wacky plot, despicable villain, action, drugs, nudity, etc.) A must-see and should-probably-own.

Amazon, YouTube, Netflix, eBay.

6 / 7


Enter the Ninja (1981)

PLOT: An ex-pat in Manila is being harassed into selling his land by a hostile businessman. Will he respond by: a) taking the appropriate legal recourse; b) inviting his ninja war buddy over to bust some heads; or c) drinking his face off and encouraging his employees to hold cockfights during work hours?

Director: Menahem Golan
Writers: Dick Desmond, Mike Stone
Cast: Franco Nero, Susan George, Alex Courtney, Sho Kosugi, Christopher George, Constantine Gregory, Zachi Noy, Jim Gaines, Mike Stone

Long before the real ultimate power of painfully referential homages, pizza-loving turtles, and really hard obstacle courses, there was an entire world of shadowy assassins just beyond a closed door. Some would argue that the 1980 Chuck Norris vehicle The Octagon opened that door -- and those people would be wrong -- but it wasn’t until the following year that Cannon Films gave Western viewers safe passage to enter the world of smoke plumes and shurikens with Enter the Ninja. (Author’s note: For you history buffs, Teleporty City’s review of this film provides us with a sublime history of how ninjas evolved from mountain clans in feudal Japan to cinematic archetypes in 1980s action film productions of every stripe).

Following a final test in which he mock-kills several red ninja attackers, recites the “nine levels of power,” and even wins an impromptu wet-t-shirt-and-ninja-garb contest after jumping off a waterfall, a Westerner named Cole (Nero) graduates to ninjutsu master after years of training. This pisses off ninja traditionalist Hasegawa (Kosugi) but Cole departs for the Philippines before the two settle their differences. He arrives at the sprawling Manila estate of an old war buddy, Frank Landers (Courtney), and is greeted at the door by the business end of a shotgun barrel, courtesy of Frank’s wife, Mary Ann (Susan George).

The precaution is warranted. Unsavory elements in the city want the Landers’ land and Cole soon observes first-hand the corrupt dealings of “The Hook” (Noy), a porky German dude with a hook-hand who travels with hired muscle to shake down business owners. Following The Hook’s waft of sweat and bratwurst eventually leads up the chain to Mr. Venarius (Christopher George) an elite businessman with a penchant for hostile business dealings and choreographing synchronized swimming demos. Under the pressure from Venarius and a parade of contracted goons, Frank has sought refuge at the bottom of the bottle and spends his days stone drunk while cheering on vicious cockfights organized by his local workers. This is a far cry from the Frank who once saved Cole’s life during combat in Angola, or the Frank who used to maintain an erection long enough to make love to Mary Ann, or even the Frank who was once able to armpit-fart "Jingle Bells." This version of Frank is a drunk, broken shell of a man who relies entirely on Cole to fight his battles.

This might surprise some, but this isn’t really a ninja movie. At its core, this is about a man who aspired to a life of prosperity and leisure following his heroic war service. According to his “life plan,” he married and purchased some land. Then, he fell in love with booze and it all went to shit. His addiction dulled his senses and left him indifferent to the criminal elements surrounding him. It made him powerless against a cruel enemy. It even left him holding a limp noodle in a broken marriage. Enter the Ninja is really about impotence. Cole -- capable, sharp, and virile -- chose to pursue a new “war” via his years of ninjutsu training instead of slacking off like Frank, and it has made him everything that Frank is not. All that said, Cole also had sex with Frank’s wife, which makes him a total prick.

Despite limited screen time, Sho Kosugi displays the full bag of talents -- solid martial arts skills and great facial expressions among them -- that prompted Cannon Films to invest in him as a leading actor. His Hasegawa character is more interesting than your run-of-the-mill mercenary given the rivalrous backstory between he and Cole, and Kosugi’s language-barrier limitations are mitigated by his character only having a few lines of stilted, angry dialog. He also strikes a blow for vegans everywhere when he burns down the village of local workers on the Landers' property. Boom -- no more cockfighting.

The overall action in the film is decent by early 80s Western standards, which is to say it’s not very good by modern standards nor comparable to Far East films from the same time period. Mike Stone, one of the story’s writers and a capable martial artist who went on to roles in American Ninja 2 and American Ninja 3, stunt-doubled for Nero in most of the scenes where Cole is dressed in ninja apparel. Unfortunately, these scenes really only get play in the opening of the film and its climax. The meat of the action consists of quick shots from behind Stone (dressed as Cole) as he fights competently, intercut with shots of Nero throwing haymakers and clumsy side kicks. Does this work? In the same way a smashed passenger-side car window can be patched up with duct tape and a piece of cardboard, sure, I guess. To its credit, the film goes to great lengths to feature a variety of ninja weapons -- from smoke bombs and shurikens to katana and nunchaku -- and the strictly ninja scenes are lively enough.

Enter the Ninja is more historically important than it is good -- it gave us this death scene, after all -- and this isn't a bad thing. This could have been a very different (and better) movie had Cannon Films cast a legit martial artist in the lead role (a young Richard Norton maybe?) but it’s safe to assume this film wouldn’t have been made without the cinematic cachet of Nero. His steely glares and awesome mustache create the lifeboat that keeps us afloat in a sea of tired cliches, and his goofy kicks are a small price to pay in exchange for a more qualified fighter (Stone) going under the hood as his double. Not exactly a recommend, but if you want to get a sense of how we got from The Octagon to Adkins, this is the place to start. 

3.5 / 7


Devil's Express (1976)

PLOT: A New York City martial artist and his protégé travel to China for a retreat that will sharpen their skills and minds. When the student lifts a shiny souvenir from a mysterious cave, the unleashed bad juju threatens to destroy them all.

Director: Barry Rosen
Writers: Barry Rosen, Niki Patton, Pascual Vaquer, CeOtis Robinson, Bobbi Sapperstein
Cast: Warhawk Tanzania, Wilfredo Roldan, Larry Fleischman, Aki Aleong

No pairing of city and era was as versatile and evocative for a genre movie filming location than New York City in the 1970s. Its dilapidated tenements were perfect for a post-apocalyptic near-future. Need a seedy area to situate your drug-dealing and prostitution morality play? Times Square is your place. If the mise-en-scène for your crime-thriller needs to suggest the hidden dangers of traveling alone, pick any subway platform or public park on the map. Alleys, basketball courts, and dodgy underpasses: the list goes on. Director Barry Rosen got plenty of mileage out of NYC for 1976’s Devil’s Express -- originally released as Gang Wars but known as Death Express in the UK and referred to as Phantom of the Subway during production -- where it somehow doubles as both ancient China and modern-day Hong Kong. Young filmmakers, take note: access to an urban botanical garden goes a long way in your storytelling.

In ancient China, a group of holy men are out picking berries in the forest or something when they realize they’d totally forgotten about the sacred blood ritual scheduled that day. They place an amulet on the heavy wooden crate they’ve been lugging around before setting it below the ground in a spooky cavern. While their lower backs might be thanking them, their arteries are not. The lead holy man strikes down his friends before offing himself and following all of THAT, a cryptic title card announces to the audience that yes, Devil’s Express is a Phantom Production. You’re goddamn right it is!

Fast-forward several hundred years later to modern-day New York City, where a martial arts master named Luke (Tanzania) is training a friend from the police force. Don’t be getting any funny ideas though -- Luke is a righteous dude who trusts the police as much as he trusts gangs or undershirts (i.e. not very much). When his hot-headed student, Rodan (Roldan) starts talking vengeance after his crew’s latest gang rumble, Luke tries to chill him out -- the pair is scheduled to travel to Hong Kong for advanced training in both meditation and combat. The body and mind won’t work well if the spirit is in conflict.

Unfortunately, Rodan’s stress carries over into Hong Kong and Luke picks up on it and chides his student for the unnecessary distraction. Rodan gets his ass handed to him during sparring, and is jumping out of his skin during an isolated meditation session. Channeling his inner whiny teenager, he takes off into the woods and stumbles upon a spooky cavern. As Luke is deep in meditation, his student is stumbling around in the cavern’s darkness before finding the ancient amulet. He pockets it and gets defensive with Luke before they return home via transition airplane insert shot. Unfortunately for them (and the greater NYC area) whatever is inside the crate is adept enough to hitchhike on a cargo ship to follow them. Before too long, the bodies begin to pile up below the subway, and Luke might be the only one who can stop the force that his student has foolishly unleashed.

Call your immediate family members. Send your friends a text message filled with the happiest emojis. Send an updated meeting agenda for your annual performance review to your employers. Because you all need to have a conversation about Warhawk Tanzania. Your grandparents will fall in love with Warhawk’s deliberately enunciated dialogue about righteous behavior. Every one of your ex-lovers will go apeshit for the skin-tight gold-lamé overalls he wears for the final act of the film. All of your afro enthusiast friends will take careful notes. He’s no Jim Kelly on the charisma scale, but he should have been in so many more blaxploitation films with a martial arts bend. It’s kind of a shame so little is known about him. (Was his birth name really Warhawk? Is he still alive? What’s his favorite omelette? These are the top three questions in my Excel file full of them). Sure, he’s not a great actor, but every second of this film when he wasn’t on-screen, I felt like screaming into a loaf of rye bread shaped like a pillow. Warhawk Tanzania gets me pretty emotional, you guys.

Do you long for the days when gangs could rumble in alleys and public parks while attracting nary a glance from law enforcement or civilians? This film captures New Yorkers, young and old alike, at record-high levels of DGAF as stunt players and martial artists rough each other up in various city locations. Throughout it all, there are random daytime passerbys pounding the pavement in the background of just about every shot the filmmakers captured. I’d imagine that the 1970s NYC population was pretty numb to the presence of film crews at this point, but the solid fight choreography here should have undone their indifference.

For such a low-budget film, the fight scenes are quite solid, highlighted by a steady rough-and-tumble quality in different settings. We get loads of alley fights, a fight in a bar between a female bartender and a male gang member, and a fairly entertaining man vs. monster climax that will have you doing double-takes from the choppy editing and supernatural overtones. It appears that Barry Rosen, whose only directorial credits were this film and 1976’s non-action movie The Yum Yum Girls, wisely turned things over to his on-set martial artists. Many of them appear to be students of various skill level, but there’s some observable technique and combinations at work.

If you can believe it, Devil’s Express was the brain-child of at least five different screenwriters. I have no idea how they collaborated, but I’d like to think that the genre influences were delegated one per writer; one person injected the scary stuff, another handled the martial arts, and so on. Five different people each throwing a delicious homemade recipe at the same wall to see what sticks. Usually, films with this many cooks in the kitchen are a goddamn mess. Does that make any of those dishes any less delicious? Even when eaten off of a wall? Of course not! If the food slides off the wall and onto the floor, we’re having a different conversation, but all of the cinematic elements work fine individually and become suitably wacky when combined. People are out there eating Mountain Dew & Doritos donuts for fuck’s sake. There are bigger problems in the world than a blaxploitation-chopsocky-gang-war-whodunit-monster movie.

If you’re a fan of trashy genre hybrids like Raw Force and can tolerate a flimsy plot and a lack of technical polish -- and if you’re here, you clearly can -- Devil’s Express is up your spooky, poorly-lit alley. The great thing about films like these is the madcap pastiche: martial arts, blaxploitation, gang warfare, police procedural, and man-in-a-suit monster movie tropes all live comfortably side by side for a tidy 82 minutes. The end result is a bouillabaisse of 1970s independent exploitation filmmaking that will have you hunting down a pair of gold-lame overalls faster that you can say “Warhawk Tanzania!” A recommended if uneven curiosity.

This one is available on YouTube under one of its many titles (I’ll leave it to you to find your way) but I’d advise you to track down the Code Red DVD release. Their high-definition release made use of the original negative and the film looks miles better than what you’re likely to find on any streaming service or grey market copy.

4.5 / 7


Tough and Deadly (1995)

PLOT: An elite CIA operative is drugged and kidnapped during a botched mission. Let this be a lesson to everyone: keep an eye on your drink at all times.

Director: Steve Cohen
Writer: Steve Cohen, Otto C. Pozzo
Cast: Billy Blanks, Roddy Piper, James Karen, Lisa Stahl, Phil Morris, Richard Norton, James Lew, Sal Landi, Dale Jacoby

After their entertaining 1993 collaboration, Back in Action, Roddy Piper and Billy Blanks went back to the well just two years later for another action romp with a generic title. They easily could have kicked up their feet and cashed those sweet DTV checks. But led by a more experienced director, flanked by a stronger supporting cast, and adorned in 200% more denim, the pair actually ups their game in Tough and Deadly. It’s too bad the filmmakers steered away from literalism when branding this film, because I think “The Violent Adventures of Amnesiac Martial Artist and Guy with Dynamically Changing Facial Hair” would have moved a lot more units than the vague title they went with.

A covert company man with the code name of Quicksilver (Blanks) awakens in a hospital room days after being beaten and drugged during a mission. (He would have been left for dead but he regained consciousness and killed his captors). Due to the drugging and multiple kicks to the face, he can’t remember squat. Private investigator and former cop, Elmo Freech (Piper), initially mistakens him for a potential bounty when they cross paths in the hospital, but he takes him under his wing to help him recover from his injuries and loss of memory. Freech puts a roof over his head, food in his stomach, and even gives him a sweet temporary name, “John Portland,” he determined by throwing a knife at a map. Like you do.

Along with Freech’s business partner, Mo (Stahl), the pair beats the shit out of random assholes all over the city in their quest for information. Slowly, Portland’s memories begin to return. He remembers that he’s a great martial artist, that weak coffee is a terrible way to start the day, and that the bathroom is a great place to randomly remember things while staring at yourself in the mirror. He loves East Coast rap (Freech likes country), prefers a glass of OJ to a shot of liquor, and seems to reliably match his pants to Freech’s shirts without any effort at all. The CIA eventually comes calling to collect their “rogue” asset, and some other assholes are trying to nail Portland dead as well. Also, the mafia. Drugs. Corruption. All the boxes are checked off.

Blanks is off the chain in this film, and I can only assume that if there is a heaven, there’s a wall of LED TVs showing him getting in bar fights set to country music playing on loop there. Piper likewise looks great during the action scenes, throwing body blows and taking hits like few others in the action film biz can. This pair works so well, and everyone around them plays his or her part to perfection. As a CIA honcho, James Karen delivers expository details in grave tones without it feeling overly forced. Richard Norton, James Lew, and Dale Jacoby all play believable thugs. Even Phil Morris, Seinfeld’s Jackie Chiles, gets in the mix as a crooked CIA agent on the wrong end of a Blanks-brand ass-whooping. Stunt performers get blown up and fly through the air, warehouses explode for no particular reason, and one henchman has the good fortune of getting kicked into a giant pile of cocaine.

Steve Cohen got great performances from his cast, put the right pieces in place for some great action scenes, and has terrific command of this film’s pace. But I’ll be damned if I let homeboy off the hook for Piper’s wild variance in beard length and style. From short stubble to long stubble and even what appears to be a goatee, virtually no hair on the star’s face was safe from his beard trimmer during this production. Now, this would have been forgivable if it progressed in a logical fashion -- from long to short, or vice versa -- because we don’t normally knock films for not showing the hygienic practices of the characters over the time span depicted in the story (e.g. “John McClane hasn’t brushed his teeth in five days? FUCK THIS MOVIE”). All that would have been required of Cohen was some careful planning and editing. Instead, it looks like they set the “Piper Beard Length” meter to random during the production and walked away for pancakes.

In the second of just two film collaborations between Richard Norton and Billy Blanks -- the other was 1990’s China O’Brien II -- they tear shit up during two separate fights in two different living rooms that will have you clutching the arm of your love-seat with excitement. Why these fighters chose carpeted living rooms as the mise-en-scene for two of their only screen fights, we may never know, but I’ll venture a guess. Norton was 45 years old at this point, Blanks was 40 -- maybe they just wanted cushy places for their tired bones to land? Like most of the fights in this film, the Norton-Blanks ones were really well done, but they’re elevated further by the level of talent throwing the strikes. The fact that these two bad-asses only crossed paths twice in nearly 25+ years of doing DTV action movies would qualify as a goddamn war crime if not for the fact that according to “law,” such an act requires something like torture, pillaging, or child soldiers. (No, not these ones.)

It’s rare that real-world events are a determining factor in which film to review next. However, given Roddy Piper’s passing over the summer, I felt a strong urge to see him on the screen, looking strong and having fun. He’s not nearly the unhinged, dangerous dynamo that he was in Back in Action, but Elmo Freech is a character with different circumstances and demands a different sort of performance. Piper plays him with the right level of physical energy when the action scenes call for it, but the character has an undercurrent of world-weary concern and tenderness to him, which Piper conveys quite believably. The dynamic between Blanks and Piper is also different this time around -- the former is aloof, the latter is assured -- but both put the same good-natured and brotherly charisma to good use.

I won’t beleaguer the point: Tough and Deadly is a lot of fun. To put it in perspective, if it were a sea creature with which I was going to be slapped across the face, it would be halibut: solid, low-fat, and overfished. What -- that didn’t help? OK, then. The actors are having fun, the directing is competent, the humor delivers occasional laughs, and the choreographed violence is well-paced and nicely edited. If you’re watching these films and settling for anything less, you need to get your priorities in order. Eat this halibut on DVD or VHS if you can find it.

Amazon, Ebay YouTube.

5.5 / 7



Kickboxing in Color: The Racial Politics of Angel Town

I would like to wish Karl, Jade, and the entirety of the Fist of B-List interweb movie review site and all that she stands for a Happy 5th Anniversary. But rather than send over chocolates or gift certificates, I'm sending over some rambling thoughts about a film already covered on this here blog: The 1990 Kickboxer vs. Cholos actioner Angel Town, directed by Eric Karson and starring Olivier Gruner. If you haven't read Karl's review, I suggest you do that first, but hey if you wanna read my BS now instead, why not? It's a free country, do whatever you want.

(Unless you're reading this in a not-free country, which in that case -- ¡Viva La Revolución!)

When I first watched this film back during a youth filled with hope and optimism, I was pleased as the proverbial punch to see a movie with so many actors who looked more like me than the usual clean-cut All-American Non-Tans who occupy most of moviedom. Never mind that these actors were portraying evil Latino gang members terrorizing cowardly/helpless Latino innocents (aka The Good Ones) and that it takes the courage and strength of a new neighbor/kickboxing grad student from France -- FRANCE!!! -- to set things white, I mean right.

As you can see, I'm driving down a very familiar neighborhood containing streets with names like Chip On Your Shoulder Blvd., and I'm approaching my destination with a question: Just where is Angel Town coming from, racially speaking?

I mean, if you've seen the film, you might -- maybe -- pick up on what I've not only been getting at, but slamming over your head with during the last couple paragraphs. But if not, read on because somewhere in here will be examples of whatever my point is supposed to be, if I even have one. (Helpful Hint: I don't.)

The film opens with the title song performed by someone with the same last name as the director, but it ain't bad. The vocals have a bit of the Joe Strummer to it, and this dude is singing about what a scary mean place this Angel Town is. This is a place where one must stand his ground because there are "devils all around", but he ain't singing about those White Devils you usually hear the militants go on about -- he's talking about the shaded seraphs that occupy East Los Angeles, California.

We are then introduced to a couple of Black dudes walking down a vacant area and they're wearing bandanas and carry with them the swagger of the Backed Up, but hey I'm not going to straight out call them gang members because that would be profiling and I don't roll like that, bro. But let's just call them gang members.

So these gang members are then accosted by a group of white-ish/brown-ish dudes who I think are supposed to be from a rival gang but they look more like the cover of Rival Turf!, that old SNES Final Fight ripoff that sucked but had the minor saving grace of allowing you to change the names of all the characters, resulting in a game where you and your friend Johnny beat up guys named Jerry, Christian, and David, because screw those guys -- they were invited but didn't show up. Some birthday party, eh?

Anyway, yeah, this group of leather jacket wearers (one featuring a logo for The Clash) start beating up on the darker variables of this human equation and everything is sunshine and overly-loud sound effects until a couple more Black guys show up to punch up the opposition, but then a pick-up truck carrying what appears to be Latino gang members disguised as day laborers screeches into the proceedings and we now have ourselves a good old-fashioned donnybrook.

We have Latinos beating up on Blacks, until one of the Latinos -- the one who looks more like a tanned Anglo than a genuine Brown -- sneaks over to the pick-up truck, pulls out an UZI and proceeds to fire wildly into the crowd. This is the same guy who instigated the fight, so it made me wonder if this was some kind of metaphor from the filmmakers about how the White Man will infiltrate the Black and Hispanic communities and stir shit up among them, getting it to such a fever pitch that they eventually turn on each other, thus allowing Whitey to do his thing -- storming in with militarized weaponry to eliminate the problem with righteous justification in the name of all things Good and Lawful.

And it is at that point that we cut to a gentleman watching all of this from a safe distance in his lowrider. He is the titular Angel, and he smiles while watching the fisticuffs turn into a shoot-em-up. But why? Has he figured out Whitey's plan, and now the gears are turning in his head towards a plan to bring together Brown and Black in peace, and fight the real enemy?

Nope, he's the villain. Later on he shows up flaunting his very own UZI to terrorize the helpless. But because this film takes place in a universe where Chris Rock's routine about charging thousands of dollars for bullets is a reality, he very very very rarely fires it.

I was disappointed in his non-unifying/pro-UZI ownership actions, but then I thought again of everything I just wrote and determined that, No, the filmmakers weren't trying to make a point, they just wanted to get the audience's attention. 

So I continued watching the film looking for examples of...something?...oh yeah, something racial because that's what I said I would write about, right? Oh! OK, I think I have something. This here is a film where maybe maybe MAYBE director Karson and writer S. Warren give us an honest portrayal of racial attitudes exhibited not only by the bad guys/secondary characters (the Black gang leader refers to the Latino gang as "grape pickers"), but even the hero is weak enough to make a questionable statement, if not straight up hate speech.

Por ejemplo, later in the film, our hero Jacques (Gruner) is in class and the professor asks him to point out something wrong with the equation on the chalkboard. Because Jacques is the hero of the film, and therefore an ass-kicker AND a smarty-pants, he answers correctly. The Arab student sitting right next to Jacques says in a non-whisper to another student "Leave it to the fucking frog!" Uh-uh bros, Jacques ain't having that. He grabs the dude's tie and pulls him in with "That's Mister Frog to you, raghead."

And then in the following scene -- OK wait let me set it up for you: There's this kid Martin Ordonez who lives in the neighborhood currently being terrorized by Angel and his gang. See, Angel killed Martin's father a few years ago for standing up to the Brown menace and now Angel wants Martin in his gang. Kinda weird, if you ask me. I mean, why does Angel want/need Martin in his gang so bad that he's now beating up/chasing the poor boy around town? This kid can't fight for shit and he's kind of a self-pity parade -- a real buzzkill, if you ask me. Such is the logic of your average Hispanic gang leader.

Anyway, yeah, so Jacques walks in on weak-ass Martin referring to his neighborhood as being occupied by "dumbass Chicanos". He decides to teach the boy a lesson by explaining to this know-nothing jerkwad that if he (and his late father) live in the same neighborhood then he (and his late father) too is a "dumbass Chicano". What I like about those two scenes is that Jacques is using racially negative language against the offending party. In the case of Martin calling his own people "dumbass Chicanos", I think Jacques was trying to set him straight when it comes to saying stupid things -- think before you speak, young man!

(The final tally for "dumbass Chicanos": THREE)

And while calling the Arab a "raghead" is pretty darn harsh, his point still stands in that words like "raghead" and "frog" hurt. Or at least I hope that's his point. I mean, maybe Jacques (and Karson and Warren) are of the messed-up mindset that Jacques' use of racist language is justified and that the dirty evil terrorist better keep his mouth shut here in 'Murica: The Greatest Country in the World and Don't You Forget It.

It's the last part that kinda bugs me, because maybe that's where Warren & Karson are coming from. Later in the film, Jacques breaks into Angel's house while he's asleep (Angel, not Jacques -- but hell, Jacques is so damn good I can buy him doing some badass sleepwalking type stuff) and puts a knife to his throat, threatening him to leave Martin and his mom alone or else Angel will be "riding with Pancho Villa".

That's a funny line and all, but I do wonder why he had to take it there. If you, the reader, think I'm being too sensitive about this, well maybe I am. But I have to find something to write about here, so give me a break, you butt-hurt bastard. What I'm saying is that let's change Angel to Anfernee and have Jacques say "Leave the Ordonez family alone, or you'll be joining Martin Luther King Jr. in the promised land!" and perhaps you'll see my point. Or you'll miss my point and only notice how clumsy my line would be for an actor to say. "Riding with Pancho Villa" does have a better flow to it, I'll admit.

That Villa line, though, here's the thing with that line -- and even the Frog line -- it kinda feels less like something Jacques would say and something writer S. Warren would say? Like, I don't know who this S. Warren is or why he or she chose to initial his or her first name, or whether these lines were even in his or her original script, but if I had to guess and then put money on the guess, well my bet would be on Warren being Not-A-Dark-Ethnic and maybe these kinds of moments come from the dude or dudette's soul. Which is not to say that only Not-A-Dark-Ethnics can feel a certain way -- certainly not, even those deep into the ranks of Other/Foreign can have political beliefs about their own that would even make Donald Trump clutch his pearls -- but in this case I'm being just as general and unfair as those I accuse of being general and unfair because it helps my argument.

And what is that argument, sir? Hell if I know. OK, wait. Maybe calling an Arab a "raghead" or using Mexican revolutionary historical figures in a threat against a Brown tickled Warren pink. Maybe writing that stuff was less about a fitting line for the character to say and more about an angry middle-class Anglo guy/gal who drives to work everyday listening to Rush Limbaugh while trying his/her best to write a screenplay about a French kickboxer who rents a room in East L.A. and stands up to the Latino gang who won't stop messing with the boy and mother who live in the house. Maybe even in the most impersonal for-hire screenplay gigs, a writer can still leave traces of his/her personality one way or another. Maybe said traces pop up in the dialogue. Maybe I just smoke too much herb.

Haha, "maybe".



My B-Grade Martial Arts Journey

I sit in my room, take a good look around at my selection of B-Grade Martial Arts films, and I wonder, "What the hell got me to this point?" What was it that inspired me to now rummage through bargain bins and closing-down video store sales to find that next B-Grade gem? My journey, or as some may say my 'descent into crap cinema', actually started with a film which is not craptacular in any sense of the word: Enter the Dragon. My mother is a massive Bruce Lee fan, and I distinctly remember her taping it for me on VHS when I was five. Even for a young kid I did like action violence, especially in the cartoons I watched -- I think at the time I thought of myself to be a bit of a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles connoisseur. Enter the Dragon was a big stretch from the Ninja Turtles, but I remember just how mesmerized I was with Bruce Lee from that very first moment I saw him kick the crap out of Bob Wall.

Enter the Dragon gave me that taste for Martial Arts, but where did the cheese start to seep into the form of greasy pony tails, fire-up montage songs and one-liners? I tell you where it started: Bloodsport. This was a film we taped multiple times off the TV and rented on VHS, and the more I watched it, the more it became a second skin.  Bloodsport then lead to my favourite Van Damme film of all time, Kickboxer which, as a kid under the age of 10, started to develop my bloody taste for violence and awesome soundtracks. From then on, video store trips became more frequent, with my older brother with us renting films such as Best of the Best 1-4, No Retreat No Surrender, American Kickboxer, American Ninja 1-4, Black Belt Jones, and Wrong Bet (aka Lionheart). This is the tiniest fraction of what we rented on a regular basis.

In the 1980s and even more so in the 90s you could rent just about everything, no matter how B-Grade and low budget the film was. So, finding a film with Lorenzo Lamas wearing a bandanna and shirtless on the front cover wasn't like trying to find a needle in a haystack, like it is now. I just lived for every Friday after school because that was when we rented movies, and with each week that passed, my love for bad synthesised music and brutal choreography grew.

I know that this genre of film gets a lot of crap, and to those people who don't understand just how creative this genre is, I say go play in front of incoming traffic. Yeah, you can shut your brain off to this stuff, especially if you have seen these kinds of films a lot and just need it for a comforting sound in the background -- hey, that's what I do sometimes. But to be honest, in the majority of these films there are a lot of redeeming qualities. And viewers of the genre should also remember the majority of these 'actors' aren't actually actors at all -- they are Martial Artists who managed to get lucky and be in a feature film. Or they could have made it themselves because let's face it -- who didn't want to be the next Jean-Claude Van Damme? And since these guys are physically fit and very experienced in a specific martial art that they have trained in, you have to give them some respect. In a way, you could say they are method actors in their own right.

I love B-Grade Martial Arts, not just for the choreography, but I really enjoy it for the predictable storyline. Revenge is always on the mind, as well showcasing your best Karate moves and not to mention fitting in a little time for a cheap romance -- the leading lady is usually a reporter or a sweet girl from the wrong side of the tracks who fell in with the wrong crowd. This predictability is what makes these films. As a viewer you want an easy-to-follow plot, with some memorable characters and good quality fight choreography. Oh! -- and a killer soundtrack.

If you take these kinds of films seriously, then you won't enjoy the ride. So here's a few tips to make sure you get what you want from this genre:
  • Leave your high standards for film at the door
  • If you are watching them with friends, make sure they have a similar stance on these films
  • Don't look too much into the plot, as you may be disappointed if you do
  • Learn to laugh at the bad acting - My life has become so much richer because of this
  • Understand that it's perfectly fine to switch your brain off for 90 minutes and not take what you are watching so seriously.
  • Embrace these films for what they are
Films have come and gone, and I have seen thousands of these kinds of films, but here is a top 15 list of B-Grade films which made me stick at researching this genre and enjoying the absolute shit out of it for the last 23 years.
  1. King of the Kickboxers
  2. To the Death
  3. Kickboxer II: The Road Back
  4. American Ninja 4
  5. No Retreat No Surrender
  6. Best of the Best II
  7. American Kickboxer
  8. Samurai Cop
  9. Bloodfist
  10. Undefeatable
  11. The Last Dragon
  12. Blood and Bone
  13. Showdown in Little Tokyo
  14. Bloodmoon
  15. Undisputed II


10 Chopsocky Training Montages to Make You Feel the Burn

The training montage is one of the building blocks of almost any martial arts film (East or West) where the protagonist(s) must physically and mentally prepare for fierce competition. As the genre developed and the trope proliferated, the training methods became more elaborate and visually interesting. Trainers became firmer in their methods. Stan Bush sound-alike tracks skyrocketed in volume. As you read along, be sure to hit the YouTube playlist below for the ten leanest and meanest chopsocky training montages to make you grunt and grimace your way to high spirits and improved flexibility. Shirts optional.

Blood Hands (1990)
Sean Donahue as Steve Callahan
What this montage lacks in appropriate lighting or film stock, it makes up for with … well, logs, I guess. But the other unique touch that sticks out is Sean’s sadistic girlfriend acting as his trainer despite no kickboxing knowledge whatsoever, and she’s far from the passive dolt her blank stare in the beginning of the clip would lead you to believe. She beats the shit out of Sean with a wood plank while he’s doing crunches and screams like a banshee while he’s trying to do push-ups. Put a ring on it!

Honor and Glory (1993)
Donna Jason as Joyce Pride
This is basically a hammock meditation sandwich with a Tai Chi practice filling -- and that’s not a bad thing. Jason, who did two of Godfrey Ho’s Stateside films and nothing else, chills in a hammock tied across her front porch while balancing a bo staff in the opening shot. What happens if UPS needs to deliver a package? Tough shit homie, leave it on the lawn. The scene ends in the same place with a slight wrinkle: Jason answers a ringing telephone USING THE BO STAFF. Martial arts: the quicker picker upper (of telephone receivers).

Showdown (1993)
Kenn Scott as Ken Marx
This one is a fat slab of Gruyere: montage fromage. You’ll recall that Billy Blanks plays a kindly karate-cop-turned-high-school-janitor and between his basketball hurling and random thumbs-up, he’s at Tae-Bo levels of motivation here. This has the worst music in the bunch by far, but it’s the best montage featuring Ben Stiller’s future wife who looks like Marcia Brady, and Jenny McCarthy’s future ex-husband who looks like a cocaine-thin Anthony Michael Hall.

Fighting Spirit (1992)
Loren Avedon as David Carster
What happens when you pair taekwondo legend Loren Avedon and Filipino exploitation supporting actor Jerry Beyer? If you answered “stretching and sparring backed by fuzzy wah-wah guitar and a disco beat” you win a lifetime supply of confused stares from chopsocky fans. The montage itself is nothing special but I admire the epic troll-job of taking a standard training scene and pairing it with funky library music instead of the customary “inspirational” rock track.

Sakura Killers (1987)
George Nicholas as Dennis; Mike Kelly as Sonny
No list of training montages is complete without at least one entry from the ninja film subgenre. This one has George Nicholas and Mike Kelly throwing shurikens, punching bundles of straw, cutting bamboo, climbing trees, and running endlessly through mountain ranges and what appears to be the Gobi Desert. Did I mention the scene ends with the ninjas and their master disappearing in a cloud of smoke? Because ninjas, I guess.

No Retreat, No Surrender (1986)
Kurt McKinney as Jason Stillwell
There’s some tremendous irony in the fact that a film featuring Jean Claude Van Damme -- a star who took the training blueprint from the Rocky franchise and revolutionized it for the martial arts set -- has great training scenes where he doesn’t even appear! You know the training is intense when your upside-down suspended ab-crunches and one-finger push-ups empty out the public park. Maybe it was the short-shorts and the uh .... thrusting that sent everyone running? Don’t judge, readers -- come talk to me when you’ve vanquished a Soviet kickboxer who broke your dad’s leg and single-handedly destroyed Seattle karate.

Superfights (1995)
Brandon Gaines as Jack Cody
A lot of these montages place an emphasis on old-school simplicity: exercises in rustic settings, primitive equipment (e.g. wood, pulleys), and older grizzled trainers. Superfights takes it in the other direction. Your typical wooden dummy is replaced by plastic tubes that illuminate on contact. The heavy bag is replaced by a column of light that runs floor to ceiling. Even the choice of trainer -- Angel, played by the undersung Kelly Gallant -- is a progressive improvement on the formula. Oh, and the protagonist is popping colorful pills containing a combination of mind-control drugs and steroids. Why, again, is this scene so much different than the others? Oh, right -- this training montage is on drugs.

Trained to Kill (1989)
Frank Zagarino as Matt Cooper; Glen Eaton as Sam
How do you enhance a training montage that features vengeful half-brothers doing standard exercises like sunset beach jogging, push-ups, tandem leg-throws, and jump-rope? You combine slo-mo, close-up grimaces, and cutaways to Frank Zagarino making out with Lisa Aliff and you get the hell out of the way. Whatever this montage lacks in novelty, it delivers in style, strangely literal lyrics in its New Order-esque rock track, and impassioned speeches about finding your “center” in the “jungle” from Ron “Superfly” O’Neal.

Breathing Fire (1991)
Jonathan Ke Quan as Charlie Moore; Eddie Saavedra as Tony Moore
I had no recollection that this montage was so good and I *really* wanted to put this at numero uno, if only for its wildly thorough approach -- this one has everything. Punching through phone books nailed into trees. Master pummeling students’ shins and forearms with sticks. Crushing watermelons beyond eatability. Sunset beach running. Blindfolded sparring between multicultural brothers. We should all be watching Breathing Fire right now instead of reading (or writing) Internet listicles.

King of the Kickboxers (1990)

Loren Avedon as Jake Donahue
As far as Western chopsocky films go, this might the end-all, be-all of training montages. Drunken master? Check. Trainee striking and also being struck by flying logs? YUP. Overly elaborate pulley system designed to improve groinal dexterity? OH YEAH. Much credit goes to Avedon, who was willing to hand himself over to some wacky training methods that look alternately torturous and character-building. What really sets this scene apart is the pretext (demonstration of the villain’s signature attacks) at the beginning of the film that makes the climactic call-back (Jake using his training to counter-attack) both logical in the narrative and rewarding for the viewer. Concise but effective.

What would you add? What have I missed?
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