Director: Richard W. Munchkin
Writers: Sean Dash
Cast: Michael Worth, Marshall Teague, Sam Jones, Eric Lee, Matthias Hues, Jenilee Harrison, Nicholas Hill, Lelagi Togisala, Michael DeLano, Art Camacho, Nick Koga
PLOT THICKENERRecent reports indicate that nearly half of college graduates got their first job outside their field of study. Taking a longer view, around one-third of college graduates will never work in the field in which they pursued their degree. I myself went to school for alternative medicine and now I work in the legal field. Hmm, or did I go to school and partake in self-medicating which wasn’t legal? It’s all a bit foggy (much like my dorm room at the time). The central character in 1995’s Fists of Iron may have wasted his college years by getting some newfangled engineering degree, but his job as an auto mechanic gives him enough money to live on the beach (in a mobile home), drink like a connoisseur (at a dive bar), and buy expensive clothes (baggy silk shirts and suspenders). Take that, higher education!
Dale (Worth) is the young and single father to an adolescent daughter. Things with his ex-lady didn’t work out, but Dale is a stand-up guy who made sacrifices to give his daughter a stable environment. He sold a business to help put his ex and his daughter in a proper home, while he lives the dream of residing in a mobile home on the beach like Riggs in Lethal Weapon. He makes his living as an ace mechanic during the day, and spends many of his evenings at a local watering hole with his best friend, Matt (Hill), getting into skirmishes with drunken riffraff. While attending a kickboxing event at the sprawling estate of a local fight promoter, the devious Peter Gallagher (Teague), Dale playfully reminds his pal of all the fighting he’s done on his behalf. Matt’s pride gets the better of him, and when a $2,000 open challenge to survive two minutes with Gallagher’s prized monster Victor Bragg (Hues) is announced, Matt is the first to throw his name in the hat. Surprisingly, he lasts the requisite 120 seconds and takes the cash prize home, but not without cuts, lumps, and internal bleeding to go along with it.
While recouping on the beach outside of Dale’s house, Matt succumbs to his injuries during a nap. Furious and filled with remorse over the death of his childhood friend, Dale does what anyone would do: he goes to the bar to get drunk. While there, he fends off a disgruntled customer from his car garage and then confronts two old-timers who were purportedly once fighters but now like to cut loose and observe instead of engage: Daniel (Lee) and Tyler (Jones). Dale asks them for their help so he can take on Gallagher and his fighters, but they rebuke this silly notion, and Tyler even stops Dale’s punch bare-handed when the young upstart gets frustrated. Because this is a 1990s kickboxing film, this resistance only lasts for about another 10 minutes. Before you know it, the pair of former fighters are instilling their wisdom in a fresh young fighter who’s gifted, as Tyler puts it, with “an iron fist.”
Due to this being such a cookie-cutter subgenre, I was prepared to hit the snooze button on this but was surprised at how much I enjoyed the film. The hero is sympathetic given his circumstances, Marshall Teague plays a terrific and dickish villain in Gallagher, and Sam Jones and Eric Lee have great chemistry with each other and with their trainee. This is one of those cases where a film becomes more than the sum of its parts because the performances are spot-on, and there's some humor peppered throughout to make these characters relatable. Sure, there are missteps. All of Gallagher’s fighters are dressed up in the most unintimidating K-Mart-level ring gear I’ve ever seen. It really undercuts the brutality of the monstrous Victor Bragg when he’s dressed in the same loose, star-print pants and matching cut-off sweatshirt that my mom used to wear to her aerobics class. The screenwriter went a bit too heavy on exposition-heavy dialogue at times, leading to some clunky, unnatural exchanges between characters. But when a movie features a line as unabashedly 1990s as “see the girls in the flowered vests to place your bets,” it’s hard not to jump on the bandwagon despite some flaws.
In an odd bit of serendipity, we’ve now covered consecutive films featuring actresses from the television show, Dallas. Jenilee Harrison -- who famously replaced Suzanne Somers on Three’s Company and played Jamie Ewing on Dallas -- appears here as a love interest to the story’s hero, much like her Dallas colleague Charlene Tilton did in Deadly Bet (see prior post). The tangled web doesn’t stop weaving there! The actress who replaced Harrison on Three’s Company, Priscilla Barnes, appeared in Talons of the Eagle as -- who would have guessed it? -- the hero’s love interest. Before he appeared in the Kickboxer sequels as David Sloane, Sasha Mitchell played the illegitimate son of J.R. Ewing on Dallas. Andrew Stevens -- who co-starred with Karen Sheperd in Blood Chase and directed Don Wilson in Virtual Combat -- played a hustler working for J.R. Ewing. Will the chopsocky film connections to Dallas ever end? More likely, it will puzzle and enthrall researchers for centuries.
Fight choreographer Art Camacho and director Richard Munchkin have worked together eight times, starting with 1991’s Ring of Fire and ending in 2004 in one of those hilarious chimpanzee action films. Either as a result of their cinematic chemistry or the efforts of a crafty second unit director, the fight scenes in Fists of Iron look quite good. Fighters' heads and the punches that hit them snap with intensity. Just about every fight is lively, with striking and countering combinations that make sense. Different fighters have distinctive styles and their abilities are showcased by camera angles that allow the choreography to breathe. Worth’s character tests his mettle against a variety of fighting mini-bosses, all the way up to his climactic fight with Hues’s heavy-hitting behemoth. Their match is fairly entertaining while still maintaining some semblance of believability -- the strategic advice dispensed by Dale’s teachers is actually deployed in the fight itself (and by extension, the choreography) and all too often, films fail to stick to this formula. Combine that with plenty of cutaway shots to people in the crowd dressed in the finest threads this era had to offer, and I’m a happy viewer.
VERDICTSome will gloss over the plot of Fists of Iron and conclude, “another post, another kickboxing tournament film,” and they wouldn’t be wrong. The main difference between this film from many others with a similar story, is that this film has a lot of heart. It also has a bruised spleen, broken ribs, and cauliflower ear. The fight scenes are fun, the dynamic between the hero and his teachers is entertaining, and the film has some of the most amazingly weird underground fight tournament crowd shots I’ve ever seen. Dig it.
4.5 / 7