Director: Andrew Stevens
Writer: William C. Martell
Cast: Don “The Dragon” Wilson, Athena Massey, Michael Bernardo, Dawn Ann Billings, Michael Dorn, Loren Avedon, Ken McLeod, Ron Barker
PLOT THICKENERWhen direct-to-video martial arts filmmakers started experimenting with science fiction elements during the late 1980s and early 90s, more often than not, the results were, as the French say, “le merde crachin.” With Jean-Claude Van Damme finding success in movies like Universal Soldier and Timecop, the blueprint for the DTV crowd was set, and the smaller studios played mix-and-match with elements from big-budget futuristic productions in which they could let their various martial artist stars run wild. When the dust settled, there were a number of cinematic ambassadors for the sub-subgenre: Olivier Gruner (Nemesis, Automatic); Richard Norton (Hyper Space, Equalizer 2000); and Don “The Dragon” Wilson (Future Kick, Cyber Tracker). I almost feel like I’ve written this exact paragraph before -- is this current Brezdin returning from the past with old copy? Or is it old Brezdin traveling from the past and writing a post while current Brezdin is away on vacation? And why am I suddenly getting a nosebleed? Trying to make your fiction all sciencey just screws things up, and Don the Dragon knows from experience.
In the future, credits have replaced currency. Los Angeles crime has been supplanted by Los Angeles pacifism. And fighting and screwing has largely been replaced by strapping yourself into a giant gyroscope (i.e., aerotrim) and experiencing it inside a virtual reality (VR) program under the supervision of some keyboard jockey. David Quarry (Wilson) and his partner John (McLeod) are members of the grid runners, a security force tasked with defending the “grid” between Los Angeles and Las Vegas from threats both virtual and physical. When a scientist has a major breakthrough in cyberplastic theory, a local evil corporation stands to profit. What they didn’t count on, however, is that the same computer process that can create physical manifestations from cybersex characters, can also be used to bring virtual killers from the “Lethal Combat” fight simulator into the physical world. When a glitch in the system does exactly that, and an elite but egomaniacal fighter named Dante (Bernardo) is set loose in the physical world, the line between virtual and tangible may be forever erased.
Just like the cyberplastic goo in which the virtual reality characters come to life, this film was a warm and slippery mess that’s toxic to pets and small children. A lot of the plot elements and visual gags are straight rips from better science-fiction films like Demolition Man, Virtuosity, and T2: Judgment Day. However, I loved how shameless the filmmakers were about this pilfering and the world-building that resulted from it. The movie portends the proliferation of the voice-commanded, personalized mobile assistant that retrieves any information you could want (here, it’s called “Mary”). It has programmable sex cyborgs, cyberterrorism, and virtual reality gaming. Looking around now at the emergence of technologies like Oculus, Siri, and Echo, I’m shocked at how much our world is beginning to resemble the one depicted in a friggin’ Don the Dragon Wilson movie. Will buzz cuts and pomade be outlawed in the future? Because for reasons unknown, the hair in this movie is huge and unkempt. Bernardo has always rocked the long locks, but Wilson, McLeod, and Avedon are all rocking some shaggy cuts in a production that had plenty of humidity but clearly lacked an on-set barber or even a single brush or comb.
This film came at an odd point in Loren Avedon’s filmography, one that we might objectively call a downturn in activity. Virtual Combat was sandwiched between 1994’s Operation Golden Phoenix, where he played bad guy Ivan Jones, and 1996’s Safety Zone, an obscure Canadian film that appears to have been released in Greece but nowhere else. While we might point to his role in Operation… as igniting a trend towards playing villains, a closer examination reveals that his turn as Michael Branson, the dickish kickboxer in the 1993’s Baywatch episode, “Kicks,” was the starting point. Avedon has spoken of his fondness for playing villains because they can act without rules, but his character of Parness is more of a corporate underling who lacks any real autonomy. It was also tough to see Avedon’s personality shine through here; he has a natural cockiness that I’ve always found enjoyable in his heroic roles, so it’d make sense to turn that trait up to 11 as a villain. Yet, Parness lacks any clear personality traits or motivations beyond those instilled by his employers. Overall, I felt let down with how he was used in this film, but thankfully, Avedon has a couple of scenes with Wilson and we get a solid fight between the two towards the climax.
On the whole, the action in the film is that solid brand of chopsocky one would expect in a film where Art Camacho is listed as the fight choreographer. That said, I’m not sure he got the most out of the talent here -- the fight between Wilson and Avedon is good, but given their styles I would have expected something with better pace and more wide angles -- the filmmakers relied way too much on close shots and it robs the audience of any sense of movement. Bernardo is a talented guy but I didn’t really see the Dante character as head-and-shoulders above everyone else in terms of skill -- he wields some limb-regeneration trickery straight from the T-1000 toolkit -- but if we’re to believe that he’s a VR program capable of learning the tendencies of its opponents, he needed to seem more invincible and adaptable. (And how David throws a glitch in the Dante matrix is head-scratching). All that said, this film gave me Loren Avedon firing laser beams and a good amount of kicking, so I can’t complain much about the action.
Now for my biggest issue with the film. Virtual Combat employs that weird trope of having Actor A (strong voice) perform all of the dialgoue for Actor B (weak voice) but instead of having Actor A move his mouth and then dubbing him in post-production, the filmmaker uses Michael Dorn’s disembodied voice-of-God dialogue over shots of Bernardo contorting his face to look like he’s thinking out loud. We love Dorn -- he has a great voice, he played Worf, he flies jets. And if you remember Shootfighter: Fight to the Death -- and let’s be honest, who doesn’t? -- Bernardo wasn’t exactly Isaac Hayes in the vocal talent department. On the contrary, he falls into that camp of screen fighters who unfortunately lack the ability to project effectively, doomed to “nice guy” supporting parts because they still sound like teenagers when they open their mouths. Teenagers who haven’t tasted whiskey or smoked a cigarette. Has Jeff Wincott ever been dubbed? Nope, and there's a reason for that. (Wincott Chainsmoking Method wins again). Anyways, this Dorn cover-up makes practical sense and the technique works on paper because it’s a futuristic science-fiction film where we can buy the idea of Dante’s telepathic outbursts. In execution, though, it comes off as overly goofy because the other “dimensionalized” VR clones talk with their own mouths and their own voices, and for some strange reason, the filmmakers included Bernardo’s natural grunts and groans during the fight scenes. The inconsistency undermines the approach, but I look forward to creating a series of supercuts where I dub Dante with dialogue from Skeletor, Zod from Superman II, and Ursula from The Little Mermaid. I might not be joking.
VERDICTThe VR fight simulation angle is interesting, if overly coincidental, given that Expect No Mercy came out the same year, but the intermingling of the tangible and the virtual is what makes Virtual Combat the slightly more novel of the two. This may be the closest that DTV chopsocky ever got to touching upon David Cronenberg’s recurring theme of technology merging with the human body, and it certainly reinforced the notion that he executes that theme better than almost any other filmmaker. I would have liked to see a better use of the supporting cast, but I always get a kick out of seeing what 90s films thought the technological world might look like in only a few decades’ time.
AVAILABILITYA bit hard to find. VHS is your best bet.
3.5 / 7