Fight to Win (1987)

PLOT: After a humiliating loss, an arrogant fighter must relearn his craft from a new teacher who has a romantic past with their common enemy. It wasn’t very serious though -- they only got to second base before she called it off.

Director: Leo Fong
Writers: James Belmessieri, George Chung
Cast: George Chung, Cynthia Rothrock, Chuck Jeffreys, Richard Norton, Juan Chapa, Hidy Ochai, Bill “Superfoot” Wallace, Ronnie Lott


The early members of the West Coast Demo Team included founder Ernie Reyes Sr., Ernies Reyes Jr., Margie Betke, Cynthia Rothrock, Tom Callos, Scott Coker, Belinda Davis, Gary Nakahama, Dayton Pang, George Chung, and Soo Gin Lee. We can’t blame you if you don’t recognize more than a couple of those names -- few went into the film industry at all -- and no one would dispute that Cynthia Rothrock is the most prolific among them. Yet 1993’s kid-friendly Surf Ninjas, which featured the most involvement from the former demonstration teammates, didn’t have Rothrock at all. Who, then, of her West Coast Demo brethren, did the Blonde Fury actually work with in film? If you guessed George Chung, give yourself a gold star. It’s shiny and gluten-free, though I wouldn’t recommend eating it.

About a year before Leo Fong cut a car-roof-shaped hole into our collective hearts in Low Blow, he directed Rothrock’s brief appearance in her first film, 24 Hours to Midnight. Not long afterwards, she would trek overseas to Hong Kong for Yes, Madam! and another trio of films on her way to becoming a bonafide action star. Fast-forward to 1987, where Fong brought her back into the fold in a supporting role. This time, however, she’d be joined by West Coast Demo teammate George Chung, her 24 Hours… co-star Juan Chapa, and martial arts superfriends like Chuck Jeffreys and her Magic Crystal co-star, Richard Norton. Given her upward trajectory at that time, it’s more than a bit puzzling to see her playing second fiddle to Chung in his first film role. I’m going to go out on a limb and call it a friendly favor. Or maybe she needed beer money.

Ryan Kim (Chung) is a cocky but skilled martial artist who helps out at his master’s dojo by occasionally teaching teenaged Valley Girls private lessons in self-defense while his pal, Jerry (Chapa) teaches youth classes. We find him fending off the angry, burly brother of his latest trainees before he meets with a Harvard archaeology professor who shows up to facilitate the requisite plot exposition. It turns out that Ryan inherited one of three priceless statues that were awarded to the winners of a martial arts tournament arranged by an eccentric art collector years ago. Ryan’s Sensei (Ochai) owns another and an Australian fighter named Armstrong (Norton) owns the third. The professor believes they have mystical properties and encourages Ryan to consider donating them them to a museum, noting, “when you do nice things, nice things come back to you.” Of course, Ryan’s not hearing that shit.

Following a successful team exhibition, Ryan and Sensei are confronted in the parking lot by Armstrong himself. He proposes a fight between Ryan and his top student -- Tankston, played by Bill “Superfoot” Wallace -- with each man’s statue on the line. After Sensei has a health scare and Ryan fails to adequately train himself, Sensei calls in a favor to Lauren (Rothrock) to become his primary teacher. As the only fighter to vanquish Tankston and someone who knows Armstrong from a previously failed relationship, she’s uniquely qualified to push Ryan to the next level. What follows is a phased tug-of-war for possession of all three priceless artifacts. Ryan experiences a crisis of self-confidence. Frequent ball-busting from his friends Jerry and Michael (Jeffreys) doesn’t help, and he and Lauren bicker like teenagers. And then San Francisco 49ers defensive back Ronnie Lott shows up because 1980s action movie reasons.

Given that this was an obscure and narrowly distributed film, critical coverage is pretty thin. Our pal the Direct to Video Connoisseur was entertained by its “really good 80s bad action” but I couldn’t find another standalone review out there that gave it a thorough look. Opinion from the Letterboxd crowd is decidedly average, which is peaches and cream compared to the savaging it’s received from the desolate wasteland that is the Amazon User Review-verse. Perhaps the most disparaging among them -- claiming “there is nothing left in this movie that will cause memory retention upon any accidental viewing” -- was written by the film’s own screenwriter, James Belmessieri! Apparently, the fact that most of his re-write -- from the expository dialogue to his “story development scenes” and “thoughtfully developed characters” -- didn’t end up on the screen left him with sour feelings. Uh, did James know he was supposed to be writing a chopsocky movie and not a historical drama? We want fight scenes, some quotable lines, a few montages with an upbeat rock or synth track, and a visible boom mic or two. So, if this movie didn’t resemble the one Belmessieri wrote, that might be for the best. (The boom mics were definitely visible).

The humor in the film -- much like the fight scenes -- prove to be rather hit and miss. Can any 80s action film resist the low-hanging fruit of the “we’ve got company!” line? This one certainly didn’t. This is somehow more surprising than the protagonist’s obsession with the fact that a woman -- yes, a woman with different hormones and a few different body parts! -- is trying to train him in the martial arts. (I’m not sure whether to give or deduct points for the movie limiting itself to just one menstruation joke). Didn’t homeboy watch Come Drink with Me?! It gets worse. In the film’s climax, some of our supporting heroes pretend to be aloof but well-dressed homosexuals in order to fool Armstrong’s guards about their intentions on his sprawling property. You consider all of these shallow jabs intended to be humor alongside its 1987 born-on date -- not exactly the most progressive era for identity politics or equal treatment -- and somehow all of this stuff seems typical, if not forgivable. On the other hand, the humor that works really well can be found in the heroic group’s banter, some of it ball-busting, some of it self-deprecating. Sensei’s confusion over American slang (“What is dicknose?”) is reasonably funny. The trope of Ryan repeatedly getting hit in the nose by his enemies is amusing, if a little overused. And the dynamic between Ryan and Lauren is also engaging, because she believably (and consistently) shows him up or puts him in his place.

Without giving too much away, the last 20 minutes of the film come out of left field. It rapidly morphs from a whimsical story about discarding one’s ego and opening oneself to learning, to a violent men-on-a-mission home invasion set-piece with fatal consequences. I frankly never saw the climax taking this form based on the story’s trajectory. It was as if the filmmakers stumbled upon a pile of cash and free guns during the final weekend of shooting and decided to throw everything at the wall in a mad dash to the finish. A lot of people are going to be more confused at my mention of Ronnie Lott than this plot derailing, but I assure you it makes total sense. (Chung worked with the 49ers during the 1990s and put Lott in his other film, Hawkeye, aka Karate Cops).


While I won’t sit here with a straight face and try to sell you on Fight to Win as an above-average fight film, I will say that it entertained me more than other films with more production sheen but less of an inclination to cut loose and get silly. All too often, American chopsocky films try to play things serious and end up looking ridiculous for it (there’s value in this approach too). Humor often doesn’t work in action films when it’s forced, but a lot of the quips here arise from the ball-busting banter between real-life pals. That sense of enjoyment translates on screen and no amount of visible boom mics or awkward insert scenes can undermine it. Ready-made for fans of Chuck Jeffreys and the original members of the West Coast Demo Team ... or NFL Hall of Famer, Ronnie Lott.


Try your luck on YouTube or go with the tried and true method of hoarding VHS copies off eBay. Tough to find.

3 / 7

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