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

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