Director: Teddy Page (as Irvin Johnson)
Writer: Ron Davies
Cast: Dale Cook, Don Nakaya Nielsen, Andrea Lamatsch, Ned Hourani, Jim Gaines, Nick Nicholson, Steve Tartalia, Cris Aguilar
PLOT THICKENERAs a huge fan of Mark Hartley’s Not Quite Hollywood, the 2008 documentary that blew the doors open on Australian exploitation film for the mainstream, I was really looking forward to his 2010 follow-up that focused on the Philippines, Machete Maidens Unleashed. You can imagine my surprise, then, when the film reached the end credits with nary a mention of the important part that the chopsocky subgenre and its many stars played in the Filipino film industry of the 1980s and early 90s. Everyone from Richard Norton and Jerry Trimble to Loren Avedon and Don Wilson went for at least one go-round in Manila, and in a sense, starring in a Filipino actioner as a Westerner meant that your star power had reach and cachet.
Or, more simply: you were an accomplished kickboxer. The Filipino film industry -- particularly filmmakers like Cirio Santiago and Teddy Page -- loved kickboxers of every stripe. Dale “Apollo” Cook, who started kickboxing professionally in the late 1970s and saw his fight career last nearly two decades, was one of the few American-born stars whose film work (nine movies in all) was almost entirely limited to the Philippines (save for one part as a jerkward foreign devil in the 1992 Hong Kong film, Deadend of Besiegers). Cook may have lacked the dramatic chops or swagger to make it as an action star Stateside, but he had an easygoing, American-as-apple-pie vibe that Filipino action films, for whatever reason, seemed to really dig. 1991's Blood Ring was just his second film and the first of four films in which he would star with Teddy Page in the director's seat. It was also the film title most often confused for a sausage product.
In the world of underground Manila kickboxing, tickets may be cheap but life is even cheaper. (The beer is still expensive). Promoters use up and discard their fighters as often as they change their t-shirts. Max Rivers (Cook) is your typical burnout drunk, fighting and throwing fights in exchange for booze money from his sleazy promoter, Dingo. When Max’s fighter pal, Philip (Tartalia), goes missing, his girlfriend, Susan (Lamatsch) brings the news to Max, hoping that he can help. Philip has been trying to get out from under the thumb of his own promoter, the evil Caruleo (Nielsen), by betting on himself to lose fights. In exchange for these efforts, Philip gets “released from his contract” which is a formal way of saying that Caruleo beats him to death. (Wouldn’t you know it? Caruleo is a kickboxer too).
The reach and cruelty of Caruleo’s gang spreads far and wide. His main hatchet man is Stevens (Gaines), a coke-addicted creep in molester glasses whose enjoyment of violence is matched only by his love for nose candy. While Caruleo oversees many expert fighters -- including a beefed-up weirdo in a mask called D’Executioner (Aguilar) -- his most prized subject is Madigan (Hourani), a kickboxer with bountiful chest hair who can’t be trusted with any dialogue whatsoever. As Max gears up to infiltrate and destroy the gang who killed his friend, he’ll not only need to defeat each of these mini-bosses on the way to Caruleo, but he’ll also have to fight his raging addiction to booze on the road to sobriety.
There is little to no production sheen to Teddy Page’s films, and Blood Ring is no different. You can’t go into Filipino action films from this era with any expectation of technical mastery because you’ll walk away more disappointed than Steven Seagal after the food court Cinnabon has closed for the day. (Not fatshaming here, BTW -- Seagal just really loves Cinnabons). The plot here is simple, if stale, but the bad blood between the hero and his enemies is sufficient to carry us through the film. If you’ve seen a few of these early 90s Filipino chopsocky films -- Fighting Spirit and Blood Hands in particular -- you’ll recognize not just the filming locations, but also the cast of faces. The Jim Moss-Nick Nicholson-Jim Gaines triumvirate is back and in full effect -- all three have supporting parts -- but it was interesting to see Gaines get the baton as the baddie with the most screen-time. As the drug-addled rapist flunky, Stevens, he’s pretty good at capturing his character’s cowardly and sleazy qualities.
If Billy Blanks is the “casual Friday” of chopsocky b-movie stars with his denim ensembles and button-up shirts, then Dale Cook and his plain-tank tops or polos with sweatpants is definitely the “working from home” model. It’s not something exclusive to his character in Blood Ring, either, because he was rocking similar threads in American Kickboxer 2. You might remember from our conversation with Loren Avedon that on the chopsocky film set -- when you’re kicking, punching, and stunting for up to 12 hours a day -- comfort is key. So, maybe there’s a method to Cook’s sartorial madness, as plain and borderline sloppy as it might appear. Or maybe he was decades ahead of his time, as evidenced by the uptick in high-end sweats worn to premiere events and basketball games by everyone from Drake to Bieber. Oscar Isaac spent pretty much all of his screen time in Ex Machina wearing sweatpants and getting shitfaced. If it’s good enough for a tech genius in a top 10 film of the year, why isn’t it good enough for a kickboxer running around Manila and beating the shit out of crooked gangsters and fight promoters?
The real question though: do the sweatpants make a difference in the quality of the fight scenes? Beats the hell out of me. Cook moves well, and you can definitely tell he’s a pro fighter. The training montage in the back-half of the film finds him doing full-extension kicks in waist-deep water -- athletically speaking, that’s insane. He looks best when paired with other legit fighters (e.g. Hourani) as opposed to the standard stunt players, and his climactic fight with Nielsen (himself a former pro kickboxer) is pretty solid. The choreography is simple and the camerawork is average, but the atmosphere -- dark arena, ropes wrapped in barbed wire, and cavernous echoes -- is a cut above your traditional “two dudes kickfighting in a boxing ring” showdown. There’s a lot of blood, a pretty gruesome ending, and even Susan gets in on the action by swinging through the air (she’s tied up per the “damsel in distress” trope) and delivering a timely double-kick to the bad guy. Again, none of it will necessarily blow you away but I appreciated that they put some custom touches on the formula.