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.
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5.5 / 7