Contemporary Gladiator (1989)

PLOT: A kickboxing karate-fighting college drop-out attempts to establish his identity in both the material and spiritual worlds. He can also get you a great deal on shag carpeting.

Director: Anthony Elmore
Writer: Anthony Elmore
Cast: Anthony Elmore, George M. Young, Julius Dorsey, Donny Bumpus, Traci Cloyd

Of all the adjectives one could pick to describe super-heavyweight kickboxing champion Anthony “Amp” Elmore, sincere would have to be at the top of the list. His 1989 film Contemporary Gladiator (also known as Iron Justice) was his only cinematic effort, and while we can speculate about the reasons for that, no one can deny that Elmore made a personal and genuine film. Not unlike low-budget vanity projects such as City Dragon and Miami Connection, Contemporary Gladiator situates its star’s personal worldview against a variety of roadblocks and internal conflicts. Whereas Stan Derain believed tank-tops and bad rapping could score lots of chicks, and Kim believed taekwondo was the key to success and happiness, Elmore’s dream was to “sell kickboxing to the world.”

Even the biggest dreams have humble beginnings. Anthony plays a vague version of himself as a struggling college student and dedicated martial artist empowered by Afrocentrist politics during what appears to 1970s Memphis (the afro haircut and dashiki were giveaways). He lives with his adoring mother and controlling father, the latter of whom sees his politics and hobbies as one big waste of time. Anthony finds comfort in his all-black karate school but it’s intense, as evidenced by his final black belt test where he’s required to punch the floor. “Floor not hit back,” you might say. To which I’d respond, “oh, have you ever punched a floor? Because that shit fucking hurts.”

As the turbulent 1970s give way to the consumerist 1980s, Anthony has traded in college politics and his dashiki for a suit and a career as a successful carpet salesman. He owns a house, has a loyal girlfriend, and he even got a new haircut. He still practices karate, and wins a first-place trophy in a contact tournament. When he brings the prize back home to his karate school, though, his sensei (Dorsey) embarrasses him in front of the entire class, beating him without mercy and literally stripping him of his black belt for fighting competitively. Not long after that, his girlfriend breaks off their relationship. Anthony finds himself at his lowest emotional point.

He doesn’t seek answers to his troubles at the bottom of a bottle. Nor does he run through the wide open field of loose women. He finds himself in the company of someone who does both, though. Kingfish (Young) is a local shit-talker, hustler, and apparent friend of Anthony’s family. After he wakes up hungover on Anthony’s couch and watches a few kickboxing matches with him, he promotes himself to the position of Anthony's spiritual adviser and de facto manager. In no time at all, the pair are united in a mission to turn Memphis into a hotbed of championship kickboxing. Will Anthony turn his dream of establishing kickboxing as a serious sport into reality? Will Kingfish succeed in his desire to turn Anthony’s dream into a never-ending parade of fat asses? (His words, not mine).

Damn, where to start? No discussion of Contemporary Gladiator can end without noting the contributions of George M. Young as Kingfish, the horniest spiritual adviser in the history of cinema. He chases skirts, he cuts great promos, and he even sings the national anthem. The fight scenes -- almost all of which take place in the ring -- appear to be taken from actual fight footage from Elmore’s career. That said, there’s not much creative choreography of which to speak. The lighting is mostly horrendous, and the ADR is entirely horrendous -- it sounds like it was recorded at the bottom of the ocean. There’s also an odd fixation on mixing music in over scenes of dialogue and the result is (usually) an undecipherable mess. In news that should surprise no one, I loved it.

Elmore is a kickboxer first, a Buddhist second, and an actor probably eighth or ninth. I can’t decide if this is a compliment, because there might be lots of things he considers himself before actor comes up (e.g. water color painter? good bowler? fun dad?) All of this is to say his acting isn’t great and has the markings of a rushed production and someone trying to remember his lines instead of using inflection to suggest human emotion. This trait isn’t unique to Elmore but I found it was most egregious with him. Some might be interested to know that in the years since this film, Elmore has embraced the Internet and fortified his online presence with a fairly prolific YouTube channel through which he publishes music videos, his old kickboxing matches, serious lectures on Afrocentric Buddhism, and this very film. Happy hunting!

This is a movie which teaches us that even if your father hates your lifestyle choices, and your karate teacher threatens homicide over your accomplishments, and your girlfriend sees no future with you, and everyone around you disagrees with everything you do except for a mildly perverted alcoholic spiritual adviser, you should still pursue whatever you want. I think most of us find these circumstances relatable. 

It’s no technical marvel but Contemporary Gladiator joins the ranks of other films which had no business being as entertaining as they were. Created during a time when the only thing that prevented champion kickboxers from appearing in movies was sheer will, this is a unique artifact from a strange era. Recommended for adventurous viewers. 

YouTube and Amazon (VHS).

3.5 / 7

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