Best of the Best (1989)

PLOT: The five members of the U.S. karate team must work together in order to compete against their highly skilled counterparts from Korea. Will the stress of intense training combined with their personal demons threaten their chances, especially if they’re not allowed to drink, have sex, or smoke the devil’s lettuce during training?

Director: Robert Radler
Writer: Paul Levine
Cast: Phillip Rhee, Eric Roberts, James Earl Jones, Sally Kirkland, Chris Penn, David Agresta, Simon Rhee, James Lew, Ken Nagayama, John Ryan, John Dye, Tom Everett, Hee Il Cho, John P. Ryan


The Rhee brothers, Simon and Phillip, are established quantities in the world of action cinema. The elder sibling, Simon, has done stunt work on everything from The Dark Knight Rises and Anchorman 2 to the 2011 Muppets reboot. While fight and stunt choreography is clearly his bread and butter, his acting appearances are frequent but mostly minor, with credits such as “Asian villain #1” and “Bruno’s henchman” in his filmography. Younger brother, Phillip, has had a much less prolific career in front of the camera, but four of his gigs were starring roles in the film franchise he co-produced starting in 1989, Best of the Best. He has since become more heavily involved with the business side of media production. The moral of the story: for the best of the best possible outcomes in the entertainment business, enroll yourself or your children in taekwondo classes around the age of four.

When it comes to competitive martial arts team competitions, no one is better than the Korean team. Practicing for 12 months out of the year -- even under the harshest conditions (snow jogging!) -- has resulted in countless international championships and Olympic medals. The team is also led by the reigning world's champion, the fierce Dae Han (Simon Rhee). With only three months to train the American team before a major competition, Frank Couzo (Jones) is facing an uphill battle. The team’s financial benefactor, Jennings (Ryan) has mandated that Couzo make room for an assistant coach specializing in meditation and mental skills, named Catherine Wade (Kirkland). With the merry band of fighters Couzo has chosen for the squad, he’ll need all the help he can get to make them laser focused.

The team is five men strong. Alex Grady (Roberts) is a widowed single parent and auto factory worker from Portland, Oregon with a bum shoulder. Travis Brickley (Penn) is a hotheaded and overtly racist Floridian cowboy from Miami. The team’s resident oddball is Virgil Keller (Dye), an aspiring Buddhist from Rhode Island. Hailing from the mean streets of Detroit is proud and totally generic Italian guy, Sonny Grasso (Agresta). Rounding out the team is the talented, Tommy Lee (Rhee), a taekwondo instructor who teaches kids in California and harbors a past trauma that could harm his ability to fight at a high level. To keep the team on task, Couzo’s two rules are simple: don’t be late, and function as a team. Other than racist infighting, car accidents, and a macho inability to deal with one’s emotions, what could possibly go wrong?

The action in the film is sparse but well executed. There’s a bar fight in the early going after the team has been assembled that serves to not only bond the new teammates, but also demonstrate how big of a prick Travis can be (his gyrating and groping of a woman starts shit with her jealous boyfriend and his crew of drunks). This melee (quite fun!) features broken tables, wrecked doors, a smashed pinball machine, and a shattered glass pane before all is said and done. Up until the actual competition, though, there’s a dearth of choreographed fight scenes, as the story focuses instead on preparation and training montages. Thankfully, the final showdown between the teams doesn’t disappoint, as each fight balances good choreography with relevant character drama. The filmmakers were wise to save the best martial artists in its cast for the most meaningful fight, when Tommy Lee takes on Dae Han in the final match with the highest stakes. The brothers Rhee tear the house down, showing off the skills that made them household names in the 1980s and 90s, assuming those households were comprised of action movie fanatics.

Maybe this is the sting of untimely 2016 celebrity deaths talking, but it’s rather odd to watch the team of young American fighters in a 1989 movie with the knowledge that two of the five actors are no longer with us. Stranger yet, both John Dye and Chris Penn passed away from non-specific heart ailments in their 40s. While both actors enjoyed roles in other action films, this movie afforded them an opportunity to demonstrate their martial arts skills for the camera for the first time (unless you count Penn’s fight scene in Footloose). Penn, as some readers might know, was also a student and close friend of Don “The Dragon” Wilson, but also trained in the early 1980s under Benny “The Jet” Urquidez. At least for a time, martial arts was a very legitimate facet of his life.

The way the film handles the cultural representation of the Korean team is rather strange, yet almost typically 80s in its fumbling approach. The most glaring trait is that the non-English lines of dialogue among its team -- primarily delivered by the team’s coach, played by TKD legend, Hee Il Cho -- aren’t given the benefit of subtitles. The subtext that results is that these people aren’t meant to be understood, but rather only identified as foreign through their use of a non-English language. The team is shown practicing outdoors and/or in temple courtyards, bereft of the sleek and high-tech settings one might typically associate with South Korea today (a country often cited as the most innovative in the world). The team is said to practice 12 months out of the year and according to competition commentator Ahmad Rashad, taekwondo is basically the national pastime, akin to American baseball. (Assuming you ignore the data showing that football and baseball are the most popular sports there.)

Unlike a lot of films from this era, the main villain is not some cartoonish brute with a bad haircut or some wealthy, nefarious puppetmaster attempting to destroy everything around him. Sure, the Korean opposition is appropriately fearsome but far from evil. Instead, the tension for the heroes is almost entirely internal. Can Travis regulate his hot-headed bullying long enough to focus on the objective at hand? Will the distractions of Alex’s family obligations undermine his goals and get him booted from the team? Can Tommy overcome the torment of his past and find the killer instinct within himself that he’ll need to win? As someone who is deeply neurotic with a lot of unresolved emotions and a trail of failed relationships, this really appealed to me.


Critics were not kind to the film upon its release -- and neither were audiences -- but Best of the Best found a loyal fan base through home video and cable TV. It’s that rare breed of chopsocky film that complements its martial artists with seasoned performers and loads of dramatic heft to help carry the story. Admittedly, it can be formulaic at times and it may rely on training montages too often. Some action fans may be disappointed with the low amount of creative fight scenes. To those people I say: quit whining...and thanks for reading. At its core, it’s a well-acted and satisfying underdog story that should appeal to pure martial arts fans.


On DVD through Amazon, Netflix, and eBay. Streaming on Crackle.

5 / 7


Pray for Death (1985)

PLOT: A straight-laced entrepreneur leaves his violent ninja past behind in Japan to emigrate to America for a new life. When his family is terrorized by gangsters, he is forced to return to the violent ninja past he left behind. Working title: "Ninjas Without Borders."

Director: Gordon Hessler
Writer: James Booth
Cast: Sho Kosugi, James Booth, Donna Kei Benz, Norman Burton, Kane Kosugi, Shane Kosugi, Michael Constantine


Author's Note: Most of the content of this review first appeared in a review on The Gentlemen's Blog to Midnite Cinema. It has been reformatted to fit your screen.

In the 1980s, there was one actor above all others who typified the on-screen ninja as an archetype, superhero, and icon. If you were thinking of anyone other than Sho Kosugi just now, please go lick a 9-volt battery as a reminder of your terrible fucking taste. The man is a cinematic legend and real-life bad-ass who also holds a degree in economics. For those who aren't in the know, this is a social science that studies the production, consumption, and distribution of goods and services. His 1985 film, Pray for Death actually depicts his beloved discipline in visual terms, where Kosugi produces a katana blade, consumes the fear of his enemies, and distributes ass-beatings to fools across the world.

Kosugi’s Akira Saito is a Japanese businessman enjoying a comfortable life in Yokohama with his American-born wife (Benz) and two sons (Kane and Shane Kosugi). However, he’s encountered a corporate glass ceiling that will delay his advancement, and his wife thinks this presents an opportunity to put his entrepreneurial spirit to better use elsewhere. More specifically, by owning and operating a Japanese restaurant in a dilapidated urban neighborhood in Houston, Texas. (Why do 1980s action movies always assume that our Asian friends have some inherent ability to cook restaurant-quality food from their home countries? This is, at worst, a racist stereotype, and at best, a five-star Yelp review.)

Akira is on the fence; he regards American as an uncertain and chaotic place. Though unbeknownst to his loved ones, Akira isn’t just a dedicated family man with an abhorrence for violence. He’s part of an elite and secretive sect of ninjas, and is bound by the order’s code to keep his identity hidden from the outside world. Inexorably linked to his association with the group is a terrible event for which he continues to carry guilt. After an action-packed flashback and a consultation with his ninja master, he makes the decision to leave for America; he and his wife will have a new business venture, and he’ll be able to leave his regretful ninja past behind him.

Not only is the Saitos’ new Houston residence surrounded by graffiti and boozehounds, but its back-room is the exchange spot for crooked cops and criminals peddling in expensive stolen goods. When a gang finds the latest product missing from the hiding spot, Akira’s family is suddenly in their crosshairs. The leading muscle in this group of thugs is the cruel and craggly-faced Limehouse Willy (Booth). Perhaps in an effort to dispel any unfortunate stereotypes the name might suggest -- obese hillbilly wrestler and train-hopping hobo among them -- Willy is a sick and sleazy bastard. His laundry list of despicable acts includes, but is not limited to: lighting someone on fire; anti-Asian racism; punching a kid in the face; impersonating a medical professional; spitting on the corpse of a vanquished enemy; and shooting various jars of pasta and sauce at an Italian eatery. The nerve!

All of this might just be a three-day weekend for Dick Cheney, but it’s more than enough malice to awaken the sleeping ninja beast inside Akira. Despite interference from the local police and firm warnings to Willy and his gang, the violence escalates on all sides. When Akira embraces his ninja past to exact revenge, his full range of superhuman traits are on display: skills in weaponry (shurikens and katana), stealth (sleeper holds and smoke bombs), and dogged persistence (he hangs from the underside of an enemy’s moving truck from day through the night). This stretch of the film also shows him making a sword from scratch, and finally donning the metallic mask to create one of the coolest sartorial choices in ninja cinema.

The action throughout the film is well-shot and Kosugi brings a physical ease to the fight scenes that lends itself to the notion of the ninja as borderline superhuman (it helps that the choreography is rather plain). The physical settings for the different action scenes are varied and well-integrated into the actual choreography, including fights in a forest and even the bed of a moving pick-up truck. There’s also a creepy scene set in a warehouse full of mannequins that does an excellent job of ratcheting up the pre-fight tension. The major flaw throughout the film is that few, if any, of Akira’s adversaries are presented as physical equals; there’s little investment by the audience because they know the outcome of these fights before they happen. Booth’s narrative remedy to this effect is to stack the emotional deck against Akira by laying waste to everything he holds dear. Certainly, vengeance stories require some sort of wrongdoing to work correctly, but Booth’s extreme approach felt heavy-handed and creatively lazy.

At its narrative core, the film is a story of how one’s internal struggle with identity can create unforeseen strife. Akira quite literally escapes from an alter-ego that has fomented guilt and personal turmoil. This is his cross to bear and because of the ninja code, he can’t even reach out to his loved ones for support. In the film’s opening, Akira’s sons are watching a television show which features a ninja protagonist (who they acknowledge) looks just like their boring, buttoned-up father. They tell their mother that “[the character] looks like Dad” and implore Akira to “learn karate some day [because] you might need it.” Not only is the ninja mythologized by the program within the film, but the Saito children project this hero archetype onto Akira, only to have him actually embody it later on. This manifestation of the archetype is exceptionally well-rounded too: ninja as detective, assassin, spy, and agent of stealth. I can’t deny that Pray for Death resembles other cheesy artifacts of 1980s action cinema; it certainly does. But in emphasizing themes of identity, the story has an added dramatic heft typically absent in these films.


Pray for Death is easily the best ninja film ever directed by a German to be penned by an Englishman with a Japanese star and a story filmed on location in Houston, Texas. It represents peak-Kosugi, and also happens to be one of the better ninja films of a saturated era. Certainly worth a watch.


Amazon, eBay.

5 / 7


Nightmaster (1987)

PLOT: A group of high school students gets their kicks by competing in ninja-themed, capture-the-flag games at night. Coupled with their sunrise martial arts practices, this hectic pace leaves most of them snoozing in class during the school day. The result? They have no time to plagiarize homework or smoke dope behind the bowling alley.

Director: Mark Joffe
Writer: Michael McGennan
Cast: Tom Jennings, Nicole Kidman, Vince Martin, Joanne Samuel, Craig Pearce, Doug Parkinson, Laurence Clifford, Jeremy Shadlow, Alex Broun


As the competition for university admissions grows more fierce, the high school students of today must be more well-rounded and active than ever before. In addition to being a star athlete and successful academic, a student also needs to play a musical instrument, write for the student newspaper, and volunteer time outside of school if they hope to attend a top institution. The students in Mark Joffe’s 1987 film, Nightmaster, have a similar dearth of leisure time. Playing ninja dress-up and staying after school for kendo practice might not be pre-requisites for getting into elite colleges, but they provide discipline, improve cardiovascular conditioning, and teach you techniques for beating up drug dealers (if needed). These are life skills, people!

Every high school has their stereotypical cliques: the jocks, the nerds, the burnouts, the art kids, etc. Somewhere in that mix are kids who practice martial arts together. As students in Mr. Beck’s (Martin) before-school martial arts course, Amy (Kidman), Robby (Jennings), Simon (Shadlow), Brian (Clifford), and Henry (Broun) are one such crew. After then sleepwalking through a day of classes, they sharpen their skills at night by participating in an elaborate game of capture-the-flag at an abandoned factory. Gamers are cloaked in black hoods and garb and supplied with maps and various paintball-slinging devices; be the first one reach the “sanctuary” (a bell) without any paint on you, and you win. Losers who get marked with paint during the game are forced to wear it to school the next day as a badge of incompetence. Aside from all the mental exercise, physical exertion, and lack of sleep, it sounds like a good time.

The reigning champion in this game is Robby, and his advanced skills are the result of grueling, one-on-one instruction with Beck, a former military man and the only surviving member of his platoon. Lately, however, the intensity of the training has made Robby negligent in his schooling and his primary instructor, Ms. Spane (Samuel), believes that the influence of Beck (her former love interest) is having a negative effect on the the gang of martial arts misfits, Robby especially. Amy grows jealous over Spane’s concern for Robby, because she harbors romantic feelings for him. The school’s sleazy drug dealer, Duncan (Pearce), has his eyes on Amy and enjoys antagonizing Robby, but he also hangs around the martial arts practices for unknown reasons. Is Beck such a bad guy? Will Amy confess her true feelings to Robby? Are any of these people even ninjas?

Nightmaster is not a prototypical ninja film, and it may not qualify under most circumstances. The word “ninja” isn’t uttered by anyone during the film’s 87-minute run-time. The martial arts class curiously focuses more on gymnastics, and the only identifiable martial arts style depicted in the film (save for some kickboxing) is a kendo sparring match between Beck and Robby. Outside the night games, no one really dresses like a ninja or employs common ninja tactics or weapons (e.g., smoke, grappling hooks, shurikens). To put it in a modern context, these high school kids are cosplaying as ninjas, and Joffe is appropriating the ninja archetype to use it in a very specific way: masks and black garb make it easier for the gamers to slink around a dark factory at night. He’s evoking what viewers know about ninjas (cinematically speaking) but any connection to ninjutsu or ninjas is flimsy, at best. So, if it’s not much of an action film and not really a ninja film, what are we left with? A teen drama! ... *shudder* ...

When games of paintball and gymnastics routines are more frequent than fight scenes in an action movie, you’re gonna have a bad time. The personnel is more than capable -- Mad Max: Fury Road stunt players Rocky McDonald and Guy Norris are among the stunt performers here -- but the film fails to carve out enough space for any interesting action scenes for the stunt team to execute. The ninja games have some visual flourish with the misty factory and the neon colors of the paintballs, but the scenes aren’t edited in a way that builds any tension. The kickboxing scenes are a messy blur, and the kendo fight and a rooftop battle in the climax are the only fight scenes worth writing home about. To blame screenwriter Michael McGennan’s story or Mark Joffe’s direction would be speculative; there are a lot of reasons for why films handle action poorly. Regardless of the factors, the net effect of this failure of imagination is a dull pace that nearly sinks the film.

Perhaps the only reason anyone would know about this film in the first place is that Nicole Kidman is in it. She’s cool here -- likable with a good amount of screen presence despite being stuck in the “secretly fawning friend of Robby” role. She doesn’t get much screen-time in terms of the action scenes, though the epilogue references a development that puts her on equal competitive footing with her crush. Watching her early-career films like this one offers few clues about her future success, or the fact that she would one day urinate on Zac Efron. Sometimes you get hints of that glimmer in a star’s early performances, but this is not one of those cases. The rest of the cast is serviceable. Tom Jennings, of Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome fame, is decent as a lead; his character ranges from arrogant to pissy and eventually humble, and he’s up for playing all of those tones. The real revelation, if there’s one at all, is Vince Martin channeling his inner Martin Kove to do his best John Kreese impression. He strikes the right balance between taskmaster and chummy and charismatic teacher, while letting some internal conflict bubble up at the appropriate times. I found myself engaged with his arc above the others despite some pretty ham-handed foreshadowing in the beginning of the film. Taken in total, the dramatic performances are the best part about the movie.


Well-acted chopsocky films are few and far between, and those without much martial arts may be even more rare. This combination makes Nightmaster a bit difficult to evaluate. On the one hand, it’s an overly talky film that plods along while lacking either the narrative weirdness or pace of action to make it compelling viewing. On the other hand, the acting is a lot better here than in most films of its ilk and it offers a mildly interesting subversion of the master-student dynamic. That alone makes it different a different brand of ninja film, though not one I’d go out of my way to recommend.


Streaming on Amazon Prime! DVD on Amazon, eBay.

3 / 7


American Ninja 3: Blood Hunt (1989)

PLOT: A martial arts champion travels abroad for a fighting tournament, only to be sidetracked by a dangerous scheme involving ninjas, terrorism, and virus engineering. Because he failed to purchase travel insurance, he’s unable to recover any of his money.

Director: Cedric Sundstrom
Writer: Gary Conway
Cast: David Bradley, Steve James, Michele Chan, Marjoe Gortner, Calvin Jung, Evan J. Kissler, Yehuda Efroni, Mike Huff, John Barrett



There’s no shortage of talented people who hated the practice or products of their exceptional gifts. Before a Paris gallery showing in 1908, Claude Monet destroyed more than a dozen paintings in his infamous “Water Lilies” series; this sort of purge was a pattern for him. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle grew to despise his popular Sherlock Holmes character so much that he killed him off in a story and stayed away from Holmes for the next eight years. Not even the chopsocky genre is immune to this sort of self-directed grumbling. In American Ninja 3, Curtis Jackson, played by Steve James, is sick and goddamned-tired of fighting ninjas, despite his innate ability to wreck shop. This is like penicillin complaining about being a great treatment for bacterial infections.

All bellyaching aside, this would mark the first film in the series in which which director Sam Firstenberg and star Michael Dudikoff sat out to make room for new talent. Taking over the director’s chair is South African filmmaker Cedric Sundstrom, who did a few features after this and then (for better or worse) moved on to television. To replace Dudikoff -- at that time, a male model with decent screen presence but limited fighting chops -- the Cannon Film Group enlisted David Bradley, a practitioner of shotokan and kempo (kenpō) karate. His screen presence at this point consisted of an upbeat fighting style and a barely perceptible Texas drawl, topped with a shaggy coiff that would make Sho Kosugi proud.

Bradley plays Sean Davidson, an American who trained in ninjutsu as a youth under the tutelage of his murdered father’s master, Izumo (Jung). Sean is recruited for a lucrative fighting tournament in the fictional banana republic of Port San Luco, Triana, where he befriends a fanboy named Dex (Kissler) and U.S. military strongman Curtis Jackson (James) who’s probably on vacation to get the hell away from his co-pilot in the first two films. Little does the trio know that the tournament was hatched by the evil Cobra (Gortner) to ensnare one lucky participant for more nefarious purposes. Through his East Bay Laboratory enterprise, he hopes to use viral engineering to control fighters for more precise and efficient terrorist operations, and sell this product to the highest bidder. His colleague and the head trainer of his ninja outfit (and a hensōjutsu master at that) Chan Lee (Chan), has pre-selected Davidson for evaluation in the test pilot. What might happen if Sean is infected by the Cobra’s evil virus? Superhuman strength? Complete ambivalence to pain? Mood swings? A burning sensation while urinating?

The prevailing opinion among chopsocky heads is that this is the sequel where the American Ninja franchise officially went off the rails and straight into the crap bin. I don’t buy into that narrative. Here’s the harsh truth, y’all: these films were not good. Sure, the first one had lasers, Tad Yamashita, and that cool girl from Weird Science and Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter. The second one had beach fights and Body Glove wet-suits and the continuing Dudikoff-James bromance. Were they more “fun” than this one? Maybe, but that’s all subjective. Any perceived drop-off in quality between the second and third entries is splitting hairs, if you ask me; we’re not debating The Godfather versus Air Bud here.

The most problematic difference between this film and its predecessors it is the direction. Cedric Sundstrom may be a capable director in some regards -- he made the saxophonist-vengeance trash gem The Revenger the same year -- but his first installment of American Ninja is a stale, messy regurgitation of old plot points. The first two films saw the heroes taking down ninja terrorists, before fighting a villain called “The Lion” who ran an experimental ninja program, respectively. Sundstrom’s film has a villain named “The Cobra” who runs an experimental viral ninja program to benefit the world’s terrorists. Yeah -- tomayto, tomahto. There are plenty of other story miscues, from the abandoned fight tournament plot point, to a goofy and protracted motorized hang-glider scene. The East Bay Laboratory’s high-tech inner lair is just fluorescent lighting and a bunch of colorful, steamy liquids bubbling in beakers. For reasons that elude me, the lab station is surrounded by half-naked dudes on pedestals who are button-activated into ninja mode at the end of the movie. This is the kind of stuff that you might dream up after eating a hash brownie before bed, but it’s not something a rational person should commit to film (even in the 1980s).

Sundstrom’s command of the action elements is equally suspect. Outside of a single car-splosion, there are really no elaborate stunt sequences in the film, but the audience is treated to a fight scene once every 15 minutes or so. That’s a fine pace, but the film’s lead martial artist and its choreography (via Mike Stone) are frequently betrayed by poor shooting angles and coverage. This leads to a few scenes dogged by choppy editing that exposed plenty of strikes revealing too much space. (If you watch enough of these films, you can probably forgive the lack of quality control). Despite his character’s objections to the contrary, Steve James is having a good time cracking heads and throwing around stunt dudes in ninja garb. He has a scene in the film’s climax where he wields double swords and hacks and slashes his enemies to pieces, with all of the correlating sound effects ... but none of the visual bloodletting. Like a lot of other things, it wasn’t in the budget, I guess.

The supporting cast features a couple of interesting choices. Gortner was a controversial Pentecostal preacher from a young age and his biggest cinematic claim to fame was the Academy Award winning 1972 documentary Marjoe, which tracked his rise on the tent revivial circuit to televangelism and his final revival tour. Considering his history of blowhard behavior, it was a big surprise/screw-up to see him so subdued here. As the ninja leader with a conscience, Michele Chan is pretty good and has amazing rockstar Jem & the Holograms style spiky hair. These days, she pursues philanthropy and is married to billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong, a co-owner of the Los Angeles Lakers. I’m sure she credits this film for most if not all of the great things in her life.


To reiterate, this is an uneven ninja film where the star spends all of about 20 seconds in a ninja suit. On balance, though, the film gets one point for David Bradley’s debut, another point for Steve James being awesome in a “Shalom Y’all” shirt, and a third point for Michele Chan’s incredible mane of hair. After that, your mileage will vary. If you enjoyed the 80s cheese of the second film in the series, this one cranks the funk up a few notches, but pure action aficionados are likely to turn their noses up at this one.


YouTube, Amazon, Netflix.

3 / 7 


The Master Demon (1991)

PLOT: One master demon. One severed hand. Ranchera music. One mesh half-shirt. Eight gallons of blood and make-up. Blend until smooth and then bake for approximately 81 minutes, or until set.

Director: Samuel Oldham
Writer: Samuel Oldham
Cast: Eric Lee, Gerald Okamura, Sid Campbell, Steve Nave, Ava Cadell, Kay Baxter Young, Tony Halme, Art Camacho


Among vampires, zombies, and men who are also wolves, demons can get lost in the horror movie mix. Cinematic representations of demons have ranged from frothing (Lamberto Bava’s Demons), to possessive and Assyrian (Pazuzu in The Exorcist), and even slapstick (The Evil Dead series). In his 1991 film, The Master Demon, director Samuel Oldham sought to expose a few of the traits conspicuously absent from the demon’s cinematic lexicon, freakishly high cheekbones and the ability to levitate gardening tools among them.

Centuries ago, there existed the White Warrior (Lee), a swordsman with an incredible mane of hair worthy of lead guitar duty in Motley Crue or Warrant. His primary adversary was the Master Demon (Okamura), a hideous underworld martial artist with a mastery of black magic. During a bloody mano-a-mano confrontation as part of the “Dragon Wars,” the White Warrior severed the Master Demon’s hand, disappearing him back to the world from which he came. The White Warrior, near-death from his wounds, brought the hand to a nearby monk, who performed some incantations and placed it under lock and key in a wooden box. To ensure the Master Demon never regained his powers, he couldn’t be allowed to become whole again.

Many years later, the White Warrior has been reborn as Tong Lee, a great martial artist but otherwise regular guy who likes mesh half-shirts and Mexican food. Similarly, the Demon Master walks among the living as shipping magnate (and art collector), Kwan Cheng. After a thief makes off with a certain ancient wooden box on exhibit in an art gallery, the two are drawn back into conflict. While reading from a sacred book, Cheng inadvertently conjures up the powerful Medusa (Baxter), another force from the underworld, who admonishes him for allowing the remains to be stolen before fatally breaking his neck. She tracks the wooden box back to a private investigator named Cameron Massey (Nave) who randomly received it from a crooked art dealer with a knife lodged in his head. (Who put it there? Medusa, of course!) The resulting scrum at Cameron’s apartment draws the attention of not only Tong Lee, but also the cops! Investigating detective Wayne Besecker (Campbell), Cameron, and Lee, are suddenly thrown together as humanity’s last hope against a resurgent Master Demon, Medusa, and an army of fighters.

Umm… where do I start? How Oldham pulled together this cast is a great mystery; it’s one of the more off-the-wall supporting casts I’ve ever seen, even for a low-budget martial arts film. Before he was a pro wrestler, politican, and recording musical artist, Tony Halme was just a 300-pound Finnish dude looking for film work, and he’s perfectly cast as a henchman who can’t be trusted with any dialogue. Ava Cadell -- most famous for her work as a sex and love therapist -- appeared in many bit parts in film and television in the 1970s and 80s, but has a fairly prominent role as Jan, Cameron’s secretary. (Her first scene involves quitting her job as Cameron’s secretary). The romantic pairing of Jan with Besecker felt like an odd choice -- their goofy, drawn-out love scene is a record needle-scratch moment -- but her quirky line delivery adds occasional humor to the story. Among all of these personalities, the most consistently imposing figure is cut not by the martial artist leads, but by female bodybuilding pioneer, Kay Baxter Young, who tragically died in a car accident in 1988. How her character of Medusa fits into the film’s mythos is never really explained, but when she can demolish an entire building with a single punch (this is a thing that happened), that level of detail is inconsequential.

The fight scenes are not so great, but they’re also not really why you’re watching this sort of film. Eric Lee and Gerald Okamura are both talented martial artists and they’ve done better action sequences in other films. The film features fighting book-ends involving them both, a scene where Lee flying through a window from the *outside* to jump-kick a guy in Cameron’s living room (awesome!) and a fat section in the middle of the film where the Master Demon’s army rumbles with our heroes in a parking lot. From a logistical perspective, this sort of dynamic (15+ fighters) can be a mess to manage. Oldham tries to break it down into digestible chunks by following each hero separately through different fights of roughly equal length, but the scene overall felt long as a result. It was also difficult to take Cameron seriously as a fighter due to his “Butte Police” shirt.

The director made some interesting choices in this film, some probably influenced by budget, and others probably influenced by a lack of time. YouTube has become a sanctuary for direct-to-video productions, and it’s the easiest way to watch this particular one, but I’d like to see how the original home video release compares to what I watched. In the version Oldham has made available on his YouTube channel, the title credit graphics and even some of the special effects reflect production technologies that appear a lot newer than the film’s 1991 release date. Was Oldham trying to improve on whatever was there originally? More specifically, there are some odd effects that occur when the Master Demon incurs a battle wound; instead of spurting blood or cutting to a gory close-up, laser-like tendons emerge from the injuries and they look like they came from some consumer-grade video editing program from the early 2000s. Curious choice, but perhaps the director felt a need to tinker after the fact.

Oldham’s other uses of horror elements are more effective. Some are traditional -- think smoke machines and strobe lights -- while others are garish, such as drill-torture and a quick cutaway to a bloody, faceless, skull. A scene in which Lee encourages his comrades to drink his blood to gain some of his powers features a convincing bloodletting effect not fit for the squeamish viewer. These visuals fit the film’s WTF aesthetics perfectly, and serve the director’s larger objective of a true genre mash-up. Also true to the horror film formula are the make-up effects used on Gerald Okamura’s demon; they range from dark, grotesque blobs to facial protrusions that would look right at home in your favorite Troma film or an art-rock album cover from Annie Clark and David Byrne.


If you were on board for 1985’s Furious and enjoyed the weird mix of martial arts and kitchen-sink aesthetics, this film might be the closest thing to its cinematic spiritual successor. That said, this film has a brand of try-hard charm that won’t vibe with some viewers, and it can be hit-and-miss. Personally, I really dig when young or first-time directors throw a lifetime of influences at the wall to blend it into a single film -- especially when they include horror, action, and Highlander-esque story elements -- and Oldham’s attempt is admirable.


Amazon, YouTube.

3.5 / 7


Excessive Force (1993)

PLOT: After a gangster goes free, a cop on the edge wages battle against organized crime and internal corruption while also repairing a romantic relationship, playing jazz piano, avoiding death, and kickboxing with his friends. Can he focus on a single task long enough to actually complete it?

Director: Jon Hess
Writer: Thomas Ian Griffith
Cast: Thomas Ian Griffith, Lance Henriksen, James Earl Jones, Charlotte Lewis, Tony Todd, Burt Young, Tom Hodges


He was a rich industrialist presiding over a company that illegally dumped toxic waste. He freely used racial slurs in reference to an elderly Asian man. He deployed twisted Machiavellian tactics against a young and virtuous martial artist. Despite it all, there was something strangely likable about Karate Kid III’s pony-tailed prick, Terry Silver. The primary reason for this perception was the performance of Thomas Ian Griffith (truly the best part about the film). When you’ve conquered the Mountain of Cult Action Movie Villain Status, there’s only two ways to go: total obscurity, or the Valley of Aspirational Lead Action Star Roles. Starting in the early 1990s, Griffith rattled off starring roles in a dizzying series of action films, of which 1993’s Excessive Force was just one. The title alludes to the film’s action quotient and the inciting incident of police brutality, but also the Herculean effort required to turn the former Terry Silver into a respectable hero.

Chicago cop Terry McCain (Griffith) has been pursuing ruthless mob boss Sal DiMarco (Young) for over three years, and on three separate occasions within that frame of time, DiMarco has slithered away from formal charges. The latest legal case -- following a sting operation and a botched drug deal -- has been thrown out by a gutless judge due to Terry’s physical coercion of a potential witness. Worse yet, DiMarco thinks that the $3 million lost by his dealer in the chaos ended up in the hands of the cops. This means that Terry and his partners Dylan (Hodges) and Frank (Todd) are in the criminal’s cross-hairs. Soon-to-be Captain Devlin (Henriksen) is doing his best to steer his boys in blue away from the danger, but gangsters have a habit of doing gangster shit when money is concerned.

If you like action, romance, and 17-year gaps between a film’s worldwide release and when it got released in Belgium, this is the film for you, gentle reader. The story, written by Griffith, allows his skills (and hair) to shine in a gritty Seagal-esque urban cop role, and no amount of expository dialogue, turtlenecks, or red scarves could have tied him down (despite sartorial efforts to the contrary). He surrounds himself with a strong supporting cast up to the task of playing colorful support characters. Henriksen is forceful and occasionally chilling as Devlin. Tony Todd, with limited screen-time, plays Terry’s ball-busting partner and the two have a natural chemistry. The same goes for James Earl Jones, playing the elderly jazz bar owner and saxophonist, Jake, who’s trying like hell to steer Terry away from the streets and towards his passion for jazz piano. Lewis, despite not having a hell of a lot to do here other than act like a fabulous model and irritated ex, delivers the best line of this or any 1990s action film: “so you just break into my house, get drunk, and feed your cat?" If you disagree, feel free to fight me on the Internet.

Excessive Force is chock full of action film tropes, from big themes of corruption and redemption to more minor details, like cops moonlighting as jazz musicians (see: clarinet-playing Chow Yun-fat in 1992’s Hard-Boiled). The action packs plenty of firepower overall, but because the film fails to build up an opponent as Terry’s physical equal, it hurts the audience’s investment in the outcome of each fight scene. Nor is there any context given for why Terry uses martial arts at all; there’s some kickboxing near the beginning of the film with Frank, but it’s framed as nothing more than friendly competitive exercise between friends. They might as well have been jogging or doing Bikram yoga. Did we need a scene with Terry talking to his dying master or educating the members of the force on the practical application of kenpo karate? Not necessarily, but it would have helped the story to acknowledge that Terry’s fighting skill was dangerous. Instead, he’s painted as an emotionally unhinged, jazz-playing, kickboxing cop, and while these are all cool qualities in isolation, they don’t really make any logical sense as a whole.


All of the right pieces were in place for a great film -- a solid cast, plot twists galore, and mainstream polish -- but after you tally all the points, Excessive Force feels a little conventional. There are good supporting performances and Griffith has the right amount of leading man swagger. However, the story is a bit weighed down by the struggle-juggle of too many plot points and character quirks. Good, not great, but still good.


Amazon, Netflix (disc only).

4 / 7


Force: Five (1981)

PLOT: A group of elite fighters must infiltrate the fortress of a religious nutjob to save the daughter of a U.S. senator. Luckily, there’s a key-holder that looks like a rock right near the entrance.

Director: Robert Clouse
Writer: Robert Clouse, Emil Farkas, George Goldsmith
Cast: Joe Lewis, Sonny Barnes, Richard Norton, Benny Urquidez, Pam Huntington, Bong Soo Han, Ron Hayden, Mel Novak, Michael Prince, Bob Schott



There is a heavily documented rumor that Joe Lewis was Bruce Lee’s first choice to play the part of “Colt” in The Way of the Dragon. Lewis didn’t agree to the role -- there may have even been a personal falling out involved -- but he was ultimately replaced with Chuck Norris, who went on to a fine b-film career and meme-worthy legend. Some fans of the action film genre will look upon this rumor and conclude that had the film been produced as it was originally planned, Joe Lewis would have become every bit the action star as Norris, if not better, given his good looks and decent acting chops. There’s just one problem with this perspective. Joe Lewis did not like any of his martial arts films. He did not enjoy working with action directors. I am not entirely sure he enjoyed acting, but he definitely hated Hollywood. This means that he almost certainly did not like Force: Five, the 1981 film in which he starred, nor was it likely that he enjoyed working with the film’s director, Robert Clouse, who also directed what is arguably the greatest martial arts film in cinema history, Enter the Dragon. I am here to tell you that it is perfectly acceptable to enjoy Force: Five, even if its star abhorred it and the very industry which made it possible.

The 1970s and early 80s were a time of spiritual awakening in Western culture, in which a number of New Age movements rose to prominence as alternatives to conventional religion. The “World Church” of Reverend Rhee (Han) is an isolated group of idealists. Members all wear the same plain white garb adorned with a bullhead patch. Known as the “Palace of Celestial Tranquility,” their home base has all the markings of a peaceful paradise. Members can be observed playing volleyball or creating pottery when they’re not attending the Reverend’s lectures, snoozing in a tent, or being tortured with needles by the Reverend and his guards. Wait, what?

In this paradise, not all is as it seems. The Church’s headquarters are located on a remote island “free from intervention from any government.” Its followers are mostly young people from wealthy families and are obligated to pledge all material possessions (i.e., inheritances) to the good Reverend’s cause. While Rhee is adored by his Church followers, he is deplored by outsiders. The latest attempt on his life is met with swift retribution, as the would-be assassin (Novak) is poked for information (literally!) before being set free in an underground maze where he discovers that the Church’s symbolic emblem isn’t just a fashion statement. His benefactor, William Stark (Prince), is the veritable thorn in the Reverend’s side. Even after Rhee’s henchmen irreparably broke both his legs, Stark continued his efforts to disrupt what he believes is a dangerous cult.

Following the failure of his amateur hitman, Stark tries a different approach: hire martial artist, Jim Martin (Lewis), give him the resources he needs, and get the hell out of the way. The debonair fighter requests five “very special people” for a mission to spring the daughter of a U.S. senator from Rhee’s death grip and bring the cult down once and for all. And by “special people,” we’re talking about characters with traits ready-made for quick introductions in an action movie trailer. Billy Ortega (Urquidez) is the martial artist with kicks nearly as fast as his mouth! Lockjaw (Barnes) is a powerhouse with the strength of ten men! Ezekiel (Norton) is the fighting gambler you don’t bet against! Laurie (Huntington) is all brains and blonde fury! Willard (Hayden) is … well, he can fly a helicopter. If you’ve lost count, this crew is comprised of six people. Again, the title of this film is Force: Five.

Made a full eight years after his classic Enter the Dragon, the film finds Clouse during a declining phase in his directorial powers. It’s a weird thing to say that the director of perhaps the greatest English-language martial arts film of all time never made another great martial arts film, but facts are facts. The films that followed, especially his 1980s output, comprise a minefield of wacky qualities. He put live Daschunds in rat costumes for the 1982 rodent horror Deadly Eyes, tried to make combat gymnastics happen with 1985’s Gymkata, and expected people to pay money to see Jackie Chan walk from a car to a restaurant in 1980’s Battle Creek Brawl. In light of these films, the premise of Force: Five -- where a small group of fighting experts must infiltrate a religious cult to rescue the daughter of a U.S. senator and oh, by the way, avoid a man-killing bull who roams a hidden maze -- starts to look mundane by comparison. A cinematic manifesto against religious freedom? Progressive multicultural-men-on-a-mission action storytelling? A cautionary tale against keeping wild bulls indoors? Nah. It’s probably best to watch this breezy 96 minutes without searching for any deep meaning or critical statements from an auteur. Just call it solid low-budget action filmmaking.

Clouse does what he can to make this film interesting by giving each of the heroes a short introductory showcase before they come together. He keeps the story moving at a brisk pace with different flavors of action set-pieces: motorcycle chases, bar fights, prison breaks, etc. The fighters are great -- Norton and Urquidez in particular look good -- and the situations are occasionally interesting, but the execution in the fight scenes isn’t always there. Like the film on the whole, the action is solid and mostly enjoyable but not especially memorable. Richard Norton mowed some dudes down with water from a prison fire hose. Water as a weapon is usually cool.


Force: Five works well as a men-(and-woman)-on-a-mission action film. There’s a determined group of unique characters with different fighting styles, a fearsome force of evil, and a remote lair inundated with dangerous bells and whistles. It’s not a great vehicle for Joe Lewis, though he is perfectly fine in his role. Nor is it a very good showcase for the non-distinct stylings of Robert Clouse, though it might reside in the upper tier of his filmography. It’s a solid effort that won’t leave you breathless but can knock the wind out of you on occasion.


Amazon, Netflix, eBay.

 4 / 7



Dragon Hunt (1990)

PLOT: Twin kickboxers fight for their lives as an army of misfit mercenaries attempts to hunt them down in the harsh Canadian wilderness. While the flannel is optional, moustaches are required.

Director: Charlie Wiener
Writers: Michael McNamara
Cast: Martin McNamara, Michael McNamara, B. Bob, Sheryl Foster, Heidi Romano, Curtis Bush, Ed Tyson, Charles Ambrose


There's a memorable scene in the 1993 action vehicle Back in Action that finds Billy Blanks's hero character fighting off an identical pair of mustachioed, Zubaz pants-wearing goofs of athletic build and below-average height. "Who ARE those dudes?!" I recall blurting out within the safety of my own stupid brain. It was only a few hours later that I discovered that these particular dudes were Michael (Mick) and Martin McNamara, Canada's own "Twin Dragons." (Ha! Take that, Jackie!) Not only had the twins made a successful living as martial arts instructors in their native country and promoted kickboxing matches all over the world, but they produced three of their own films where they were the stars. 1990's Dragon Hunt, a quasi-sequel-ish follow-up to their debut in 1986's Twin Dragon Encounter, promised double the action, double the facial hair, and approximately eight times the vanity as their first film.

In what one can only assume is an autobiographical tale, the McNamara brothers play twin Canadian kickboxing instructors named Martin and Mick. A twisted creep with a metal hand by the name of Jake (Bob) leads his private army -- er, the People's Private Army -- in framing the twins in a cruise boat hijacking. This act is not entirely without cause, as we observe via flashback that Jake is a previously vanquished adversary who lost his hand in a prior encounter of the Twin Dragon variety. If that's not bad enough, Jake contracts two attractive ladies -- played by Sheryl Foster and Heidi Romano, respectively -- to court the twins and lure them to a secluded island under the guise of a getaway vacation. Before long, the twins are captured by Jake and forced to act as prey in his own twisted version of a most dangerous game. His gang has used every method available to them, up to and including placing ads in "all the mercenary, hunting, and martial arts magazines" in order to find the best hunters, killers, and poachers in the world to hunt the twins down for a $250,000 (CAD) prize. Jake's mercenaries include expert trappers, whiteboy ninjas,  a "beastmaster" in a cowboy hat (Tyson) who owns a furry dog, and a lot of guys with terrible haircuts. The only arbitrary rule: no guns allowed. (Until the climax). Can the twins survive in the Canadian wilderness with the deck stacked against them? Will Jake get his ultimate revenge? Can the cast and crew manage only one restroom among them (per co-star Curtis Bush)?

Let’s get this out of the way: the heroes McNamara are total jerks in this film. At the start of their vacation with their lady friends, one twin snaps a girl’s bra strap while another twin mimes humping the back of the other girl’s head. While driving a boat, one twin pours a perfectly good beer all over one of the gals while she's sitting down and minding her business. The first fatal strike they make against Jake’s army is killing the Beastmaster’s dog instead of the goons for hire. Later in the film, they chase an enemy through the woods while taunting him about his weight. Maybe skull-humping, body-shaming dog murderers are celebrated as heroes in some parts of the world, but not in my house.

As the ruthless gang leader, Jake, B. Bob is both the best and worst thing about the film. His visual look strikes the right balance between loud-mouthed 1980s wrestling manager and walk-on extra in an Italian post-apocalyptic b-movie. His gruff, stilted dialogue ("trained assassins -- ruthless, fanatical, I LIKE THEM") is frequently hilarious and his incessant screaming is appropriate to match the campy tone of the film. However, his constant reliance on reciting fight songs and modified nursery rhymes is grating and not especially funny. If you thought the songs in City Dragon were an insult to the musical form, Jake's improvisations might be regarded as a cultural war crime. A certain segment of the viewing population will be entertained by these segments, and I want nothing more than for these people to fall victim to violent spasms of diarrhea while sitting in traffic.

The action builds in intensity and scale the way it should in genre action films -- Dragon Hunt gets this part mostly right. The rustic trap setting (a la First Blood) becomes more elaborate, the kills get more gruesome, and the firepower becomes louder and more frequent. The major misstep amidst all of this, though, is having two martial artists as stars and not featuring them in more than a couple of fights. Who do we have to blame for this oversight? The star martial artists themselves. One scene finds a twin battling a crossbow-wielding Curtis Bush -- the only other verifiable martial artist in the film, by my estimation -- but it's short-lived and a bit bland. The climax sees the twins deploying every weapon in their arsenal, punches and kicks included, but the fight is dogged by slo-mo and lacks any interesting exchanges or combinations. Instead of going with relative strengths -- actual fighting -- the McNamara twins oddly chose the more "Eighties!" option of traps and guns. This was the film's biggest weakness and a baffling decision when you consider the personnel.


Dragon Hunt is the second in three self-made McNamara films, and regardless of what you think of them from a quality perspective, you have to admire the gusto of the twins' effort. At the the end of the day, though, this story is derivative, the acting ranges from stiff to goofy, and the action isn't executed well enough to counteract the missteps in other areas. An odd, occasionally entertaining curiosity.


The only official copies never made it beyond VHS, so eBay and Amazon are your best bet. Occasional do-gooders have uploaded it to YouTube.

2.5 / 7


A Dangerous Place (1994)

PLOT: A teenage martial artist is thrown into a world of theft and risky behavior while investigating the death of his older brother. Will he find out the truth? And what sorts of cool swag will he accumulate in the process?

Director: Jerry P. Jacobs
Writer: Sean Dash
Cast: Ted Jan Roberts, Corey Feldman, Marshall Teague, William James Jones, Erin Gray, Mako, Dean Cochran, Jason Majik, Erin Gray


The 1984 film The Karate Kid had a lot going for it. Pat Morita was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance as Mr. Miyagi. It featured a charming teenage protagonist with tangible, relatable problems. It set the blueprint for high school gangs of martial arts meatheads. But you know what The Karate Kid movie was missing? A murder subplot! That’s the dropped ball that director Jerry P. Jacobs tried to pick up with 1994’s A Dangerous Place. That ball is covered in blood and pomade from Corey Feldman’s pompador.

Ethan (Roberts) and Greg (Cochran) are two teenage brothers living with their single mom, Audrey (Gray). One might expect the younger Ethan to be the troublemaker when, in fact, it’s Greg who finds himself hanging out with the wrong crowd. As of late, he’s been skipping karate class at the Lions dojo to hang out with the Scorpions gang, a group of suburban karate street toughs led by Taylor (Feldman). The crew goes on joy rides during random weeknights, stealing cars, dirt bikes, electronics, and whatever else catches their eyes -- they run wild with impunity and look cool doing it. (“How come all the best looking girls in school hang out with the Scorpions?") Because they have dirt bikes and nice televisions. Duh!

While Greg hangs with them socially and has represented them in illicit sunset beach fights, he’s not quite a “made” member of the group. After coaxing him into a night-time domestic burglary, the Scorpions turn on Greg when he has a crisis of conscience mid-act. During a physical struggle, Greg gets maced, falls down a flight of stairs, and dies accidentally. How do Taylor and his impressionable friends with behavioral problems respond? If you answered, “they report the accident and serve their time,” you win a prize! The prize is immaculately wrapped and decorated with ribbons. You tear the wrapping paper off to reveal a gift box. The box contains a framed picture of Greg’s prone body hanging from the basketball net at the high school gymnasium. Yep -- these pricks staged his death to look like a suicide. Enjoy your prize, by the way.

Ethan refuses to believe the circumstances surrounding his brother’s death. What about his bike? Never recovered. What about the bruises on his body? Unexplained. Against the wishes of his Sensei (Mako) he wants to infiltrate the gang to find out the truth about that fateful night. He first brawls with a Scorpion member in the cafeteria during lunch to demonstrate his toughness. He slowly befriends the most sympathetic Scorpion member, Eddie (Jones). Finally, he shows up to the Scorpions’ dojo to spar, and later arranges a competitive fight between the Lions and Scorpions to win the approval of the wicked Sensei (and English teacher) Gavin Smith (Teague).

This was my first foray into the action film career of Ted Jan Roberts and while I’m nearly two decades beyond the targeted demographic for this film, I can say that 12-year-old me would think he was pretty cool shit. He’s sort of like Daniel Larusso with Cali mall swagger in place of New Jersey wisecracking. A Jonathan Taylor Thomas with karate skills, if you will. His on-screen fighting is solid and believable, and in a post-Ernie Reyes/Kane Kosugi world, that’s all you can ask out of an adolescent martial arts film star. In terms of screen presence, he’s perfectly fine for this material and the filmmakers wisely avoid the trappings of any sustained emotive drama. Ethan is angry and inquisitive, not depressed and weepy. It’s a bit unnatural since these family members barely react to the sudden death of a brother and son, but this is a movie about teenage karate vengeance, not therapy sessions and brooding introspection.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the contributions of Corey Feldman as the treacherous Taylor. It would have been simple to follow the blueprint of Billy Zabka as Johnny Lawrence in the Karate Kid and play him as a volatile, testesterone-fueled jerk. Instead, he portrays Taylor as sleazy and calculating. Feldman’s fighting technique doesn’t match the skills that his character’s black-belt rank might suggest -- do you really buy his lethal mastery of eagle claw? -- but fight choreographer Art Camacho makes it work regardless. His character’s cold unpredictability and absence of fear of consequences is what makes him tick. Throw in an out-of-time greasy pompador hair style and an everyday affection for black fingerless gloves, and he’s a weirdly memorable 1990s martial arts douchebag.


A Dangerous Place has Corey Feldman popping wheelies on a dirtbike across a baseball field during live game-play while wearing a red gi and black fingerless gloves. What more do you want? Run out and impulsively put some discretionary income down on this film, like the foolish, emotionally distraught teenager you never were.


Amazon, eBay.

4 / 7

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