Virtual Combat (1995)

PLOT: In the future, a scientific breakthrough leads to a breakdown in the barrier between virtual reality and the physical world, where computer programs are equipped with human bodies and run amok. What science has wrought, only kicks, guns, and double-stomps to the chest can destroy.

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


When 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 And fighting and screwing has largely been replaced by strapping yourself into a giant gyroscope (i.e., aerotrim) and experiencing it inside a virtual reality (VR) program under the supervision of some keyboard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.


The 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.


A bit hard to find. VHS is your best bet.

3.5 / 7


Blood Ring (1991)

PLOT: An American fighter in Manila is forced to put down the bottle and take up arms (and fists) against the evil fight promoters who killed his friend. Bad timing too, because he just signed up for a mail-order membership to a “Godawful Cheap Vodka of the Month” club.

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


As 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.


It’s undoubtedly cheap and occasionally sleazy. It’s plenty of other excessive adverbs combined with adjectives typically associated with Filipino exploitation films -- take your pick, man. It’s got all the customary markers: subpar acting, doofy plot, poor lighting, crazy stunts, and a library music score. Does Blood Ring rise above it all and deliver the goods in spite of itself? It sort of depends on your threshold for technically unsound cinema and your appreciation for Oklahoman kickboxers. Fortunately, I have both in spades, so I thought it was a breezy 90 minutes. Solid pick for those Saturday afternoons when you don’t want to change out of your tank top and sweatpants.


It never made the jump to DVD (R1 anyway), so used VHS copies on Amazon or eBay are probably your best bet.

3 / 7

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