True Vengeance (1997)

PLOT: When his daughter is kidnapped, a single father must return to his roots as a deadly assassin in order to carry out one last mission and destroy the Yakuza bosses who kidnapped her. Unofficial sequel to the Michael Keaton comedy, Mr. Mom.

Director: David Worth
Writer: Kurt Johnstad
Cast: Daniel Bernhardt, George Cheung, Beverly Johnson, Jonathan Lutz, Miles O’Keeffe, Roger Yuan, Leo Lee

What’s the most common plot keyword that comes up in the martial arts movie genre? If you guessed “pool party,” I don’t appreciate your sarcasm. In news that will surprise no one except this koala, the most common plot keyword is “vengeance.” The theme is diluted in chopsocky movies due to overuse -- vengeance can be a reaction to everything from the murder of a kickboxer’s loved ones to a hilarious but cruel school prank. How then, do we tell these different shades of cinematic vengeance apart? When is the pursuit of vengeance illogical, and when is it the only appropriate response? The 1997 film True Vengeance seeks to provide some guidelines along with a high body count.

Like all good single fathers, Allen Griffin (Bernhardt) celebrates his child’s birthday with laughs and cake, fondly remembers his departed wife, and makes enough money working in a warehouse to afford a three-bedroom 2200 square-foot house. Minor detail: he used to kill people professionally. When his daughter, Emily, goes missing, Griffin pops in DAT UNLABELED MYSTERY VHS TAPE ON THE COFFEE TABLE to discover that a criminal element has kidnapped her. The tape footage shows her hooked her up to a breathing apparatus that will cut off her oxygen supply in 24 hours -- UNLESS! -- Griffin performs one more kill. This method of blackmail is more diabolical than it needs to be and more fitting of a Bond villain, but this is David Worth’s world, and we’re just living in it.

Griffin gears up and goes back to work as we discover that the organization behind the grim misdeed is the local Yakuza, headed by Hidako Minushoto (played by the always cantankerous George Cheung). The bodies start piling up like unwanted furniture catalogs, and homicide investigators  -- one a grizzled detective (Lutz), the other a Naval Intelligence officer (Johnson) -- are soon on Griffin’s trail. Will they be able to put a stop to the killing before Griffin shoots up every last strip joint and restaurant in town? (Nope). Will a deranged, paper crane-obsessed figure from Griffin’s past reveal himself as the Yakuza’s outside “Specialist”? (Yep).

The kidnapped child trope is beaten to bits at this point, but it’s the perfect framework for a family man rampage. There are some good fights here too. Griffin battles an unwanted handler in the dreaded “drop-ceiling office” setting but the fight has a good pace plus clever camera angles to mitigate the space restrictions. Griffin goes on to battle some punks in a pop-up tattoo parlor that uses streams of VHS tape from the ceiling as decoration. Despite a scattering of hand-to-hand choreography, the action is predominantly comprised of shootouts marked by slo-motion and nary a reload. It seems like the filmmakers were trying to capture the best of both Hong Kong heroic bloodshed and gritty modern kung-fu, and they succeed… sort of. I took issue with the brevity and lack of emotion in those scenes, so all you’re left with are stylistic imitations. Don't get me wrong, they're still really fun to watch, but are imitations nonetheless (and without the doves or forced homoeroticism).

Philip Tan, previously seen around these parts in Martial Law, performed martial arts coordinator duties for this film. As evidenced by nearly 80 stunt and fight coordinating credits over his career, this role is his bread and butter. He also has the unfortunate distinction -- some might call it stank -- of being involved in the cinematic shitshow Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever. Whether this experience was better or worse than his role as “gorilla suit performer” in George of the Jungle, we may never know. In any case, Tan did great work here despite the gunplay getting greater emphasis than the hand-to-hand action. Bernhardt looks impressive as he dispatches enemies with all the efficiency of an elite killer. The fights are shot well and the stunt performers sell out for Bernhardt to make him look great on camera.

Dirty little secret: this was my first real Daniel Bernhardt film. Yes, before Bloodsport 2. Still haven’t seen John Wick or Parker. And I can’t count The Matrix Reloaded in good conscience... *ducks random shoes thrown by blog readers* … Easy guys, I don’t have much free time these days! In any case, Bernhardt is a solid lead actor. He has good chemistry with the girl playing his daughter despite the slim shared screen time, he cuts an imposing figure as a vengeful assassin, and he pulls off the action scenes convincingly. That said, I couldn’t help but notice the mild Euro-inflection with which he spoke and wonder if it was intentional. Despite Bernhardt’s Swiss roots, it sounded positively Van Damme-esque (or quasi-Gruner).

Unlike Van Damme, Bernhardt seems awfully embarassed by his humble cinematic origins in light of his recently elevated profile. Check out this interview clip and tell me that he’s excited to name-drop Bloodsport 3 at a red-carpet event. While he stops short of whipping out a VHS copy of Future War and chucking it into the Pacific Garbage Patch while crying, homeboy isn’t too jazzed about acknowledging his DTV action past. Embrace the Dark Kumite, Daniel.

There was a short-lived period in the late 1990s where a not-insignificant portion of American DTV action was doing its damnedest to ape the 1980s Hong Kong approach to the genre. Some, like Drive and Bloodmoon, hit this style right on the head. Other films swung and missed, but then hit the nearest assassin posing as a cocktail waiter right in the head anyways. I’d like to think True Vengeance falls into this latter category. It’s a solid actioner and a good jump-off point for Bernhardt’s filmography. Recommended.

Amazon, YouTube.

4.5 / 7


Second Look: The Clowns, Sleaze, and Cheese of TO THE DEATH

For action junkies Jade and Karl, there’s at least one film in the chopsocky universe that stands out like a smoking clown in a fancy restaurant. They recently held a virtual roundtable to discuss the weirdness and lasting legacy of To the Death, a 1993 pseudo-sequel to American Kickboxer 1 starring John Barrett and Michel Qissi.

How did you originally learn about this movie?
JADE: I originally heard about To the Death when a friend of mine taped it with Universal Soldier and Kickboxer all on one VHS. He said it was pretty damn awesome, and my god he was right. 
KARL: I was charting John Barrett’s filmography. I liked him in American Kickboxer and Merchants of War and felt he was a solid dramatic actor for a genre that has so few of them. When I saw that this was a quasi-sequel, I jumped right on it. 

In American Kickboxer, Brad Morris played the part of Jacques Denard as a cocky asshole. Michel Qissi took over the role for this film and seems unreasonably angry the whole time. What did you think about the differences between the performances? Did you prefer one over the other?
JADE: I completely agree with Brad Morris being a cocky asshole. When I first saw American Kickboxer I was thinking "Oh, you better get what you deserve you jerkburger!" I still like Michel Qissi's portrayal of Denard but again, I agree, he was way too angry, and he just seemed to chuck a tantrum over ANYTHING. It reminded me of a spoilt toddler who cries when he is told he can't have something. I also think as Qissi had played Tong Po in Kickboxer, maybe he was still wanting to be seen as the bad guy and thought acting overly tough meant menacing, which alas just isn't the case.
KARL: Interesting that you bring up the residual effects of the Tong Po role. Don’t get me wrong: I like Qissi, especially as a fierce villain, but I feel like that’s the only mode he knows. Morris injected so much flamboyance and goofball dickery into the Denard character, so it’s hard for me to reconcile that with Qissi’s more one-dimensional performance.

The character of BJ Quinn in American Kickboxer is called Rick Quinn here. How did you account for this change?
JADE: I actually didn't notice the name change until years later, as I watched To the Death a lot more than I watched American Kickboxer (the latter was a lot harder to find in video stores in Australia). I didn't really see the point as to why they needed to change the name. It was probably changed as in some way they didn't want to be officially tied to American Kickboxer, but still wanted to keep that rivalry, so they only changed half the name and kept the main protagonist, as the fans of American Kickboxer will still be able to relate to him or “understand” his story more.
KARL: It feels like an alternate-universe aftermath of American Kickboxer, like the tangent 1985 from Back to the Future II. This story could even be BJ Quinn having a fucked up dream after eating sugar too close to bedtime. That said, American Kickboxer 2 had nothing to do with American Kickboxer 1, so the jury’s out: I have no clue whatsoever. Probably some weird rights ownership thing.

What's up with the ring announcer in clown make-up?
JADE: Oh man, that ring announcer scared the hell out of me when I first saw this at 15 (I have a huge fear of clowns). But throughout the years, I have put that out of my head and I actually compare him to the Master of Ceremonies from Cabaret as he has that over the top if not camp like quality and he uses that quality to put his point across. I think it's actually awesome having that ring announcer there, I think it shows a level of theatrics so people going to these fights will think it's very grand and unlike anything else.
KARL: So many of these movies featuring “underground fights for an audience of elites” still feel like they’re filmed in the same dingy back room with same refs and announcers. But the fights here take place in fancy restaurants and nightclubs with a chain-smoking dude in a tuxedo and clown paint telling tasteless jokes. Good or bad, it makes the film feel different.

Why does the referee kill the losing fighter with a gun instead of just letting the winning fighter kill the loser?
JADE: I truly believe they kill the losing fighter as a means of control. While the money is great that you are given if you win, but the stakes are incredibly high. I mean c'mon for every fight you win you get 5 grand, but 5 grand doesn't come for free. Also I believe you need to have an antagonist in the film who will challenge the protagonist. Sure, Dominique Le Braque doesn't do the killing, but he pays people to do that. He's far too evil and calculating to get his hands dirty.
KARL: I think it’s Le Braque being a psycho but also covering his tracks once the fighters are no longer useful to him. I liked the visual association between his throwing a rose in the ring and the losing fighter getting capped. Why the ref gets stuck doing all of the shootings, I’m not sure. The refs in these things barely ever matter, so maybe they wanted to elevate the position a bit.

What was your favorite scene?
JADE: Mine was when they catch Angelica having some sexy times with Rick, and Dominique just loses it, but it is so damn funny. Every time I watch it, I get in fits of laughter.
KARL: Is that the archery scene in the morning? I recall that Le Braque makes an off-color remark about cutting off Rick’s balls and broiling his dick that had such strange line delivery. I liked that one plus every awkward dinner scene with Quinn and his hosts.  

What do you think makes this film different from other chopsocky films?
JADETo the Death is cheesy, and at times very over the top and so cliche, however I believe it's not just your run of the mill chopsocky film. I think To the Death could have had a really big world wide following if it was marketed just a bit better. I also think back in 1992 everyone was Van Damme crazy so if you see his films, you get a bit spoilt as everything he was doing back then was amazing. Also in 1992 you had films like Universal SoldierUnder SiegeHard Boiled, and Police Story 3 being released, so it was hard competing.
KARL: It struck me when I first watched it: this film is actually quite dark and sleazy. You have a rich crazy asshole who runs death matches, terrorizes his own wife, and sets up an elaborate sports car explosion when a fighter turns down his offer. Rick has a self-destructive downward spiral and then gets drawn into this nutcase’s home life and all its depravities. I remarked that this was Blue Velvet-era David Lynch doing a chopsocky movie and I’m standing by that. Le Braque isn’t huffing nitrous oxide or screaming about Pabst Blue Ribbon, but he’s not far off.

What did you think about the opening song, and do you think it should have also been used for a training montage? Do you believe it can be put on those “fire-up” song lists with the likes of the Bloodsport or Rocky soundtracks?
KARL: It’s entertaining, but not on that level for me. It sounded reminiscent of the closing song from Double Impact mashed with a New Kids on the Block attempt at 90s hip-hop. Not really my thing. Of course, I say this as a guy who gets fired up by “Final Countdown” by Europe, so maybe my opinion doesn’t count for much.

Would you have liked to have seen more fighting?
JADE: I thought at times there should have been less of Rick trying to bang Angelica and a lot more fighting.
KARL: My answer will almost always be yes. But I think so much of what makes this a unique film within the genre are the non-action elements. Le Braque isn’t a fighter, but he has the best lines and is probably the most entertaining part of the film. The smoking clown announcer doesn’t throw a single kick but I’ll remember him forever.

Have you shown this film to anyone? If so, what was their reaction?
JADE: I’ve shown my younger brother when he was probably about 10, and he was saying it was good to humour me I think, and possibly to get me to shut up. I also showed it to two of my best friends who also have a love for this kind of thing, and they all got a massive kick out of it.
KARL: I haven’t, and I’m not sure that I would push this one very hard. Films like Miami Connection or Ninja Turf are a bit more accessible because of the 80s kitsch, so I think they’re safer bets to translate for crowds unfamiliar with these sorts of movies.

Why the hell isn't this on DVD?
KARL: That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it? A little surprising too, given that it was a Cannon Films release. I think it has potential to be something of an underground cult film, but I think the best we can hope for is seeing it as part of a cheap multi-disc Bluray when the format is in its last gasp.  

Do you believe that To the Death is a film that you are going to keep re-watching until your own death?
JADE: I know I will, I have had so much enjoyment from watching this film, and I have made many memories in the process. For me there is an addictive additive in these kinds of films, which is why I just re-watch them over and over again. I mean films like To the DeathMiami Connection and King of the Kickboxers would definitely be in my top 100 films of all time.

KARL: I try not to ruminate too much on my own death, but I’ll take the bait. I could see revisiting it once every few years but this is something to be savored. There's way too much out there I haven't seen, so to rewatch something means it has to be rarified air (at least top ten) for me.
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