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 RevoluciĆ³n!)

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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