Fists of Iron (1995)

PLOT: A single dad with an engineering degree who works as an auto mechanic decides to pursue underground kickboxing after his friend is killed. Will his drunken has-been trainers teach him enough to avoid a similar fate?

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



Recent 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.


Some 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.


Amazon, eBay.

4.5 / 7



Deadly Bet (1992)

PLOT: A drunken, degenerate, kickboxing gambler must overcome his vices to regain his self-esteem, his money, and the woman he loves. But mostly, his money.

Director: Richard W. Munchkin
Writer: Joseph Merhi, Robert Tiffe
Cast: Jeff Wincott, Steven Vincent Leigh, Charlene Tilton, Michael Delano, Mike Toney, Ian Jacklin, Gerald Okamura, Ron Hall, Gary Daniels


I’ve only been there once, but I can say from experience that when Las Vegas puts its hooks in you, it can be hard to break free. One minute you’re walking around on the casino floor, slack-jawed and overstimulated, and the next minute you’re $2,000 in the red, wondering where it all went wrong and why you’re wearing mismatched sneakers. (Don’t ask). Director Richard Munchkin and PM Entertainment honcho Joseph Merhi originally met in the City of Lights, so it’s no wonder that Vegas was often featured as a setting in many PM films. In 1992’s Deadly Bet, it’s also the antagonist.

Angelo (Wincott) and Isabella (Tilton) are a young couple on the verge of a move, trading the neon of Las Vegas for the natural wild of Colorado. This particular night finds them exchanging a hearty goodbye with Isabella’s lounge-singer brother, Frank (real-life entertainer Jerry Tiffe) before Angelo announces that he needs to settle a debt of $1,000. The creditor in this situation is Rico (Leigh) a suave fight promoter and fighter who gives Angelo the chance to settle the debt by taking a new bet on two fighters currently in the ring. Angelo’s fighter wins! The couple celebrates over drinks! A steamed Rico finds them later in the evening and challenges Angelo to a fight for even more money. This time Angelo not only loses, but made the foolish mistake of putting Isabella up as collateral. She begrudgingly goes home with Rico, but not before slapping Angelo in the face for his dumb deeds and broken promises.

Broken, alone, and flat-broke, Angelo must decide between two paths. One: cease gambling, get sober, and win back everything that he’s lost. Two: get shit-faced, owe more people even more money that he doesn’t have, and act like a total asshole. As you can probably guess, he spends a lot of time in this story stumbling down path #2 before he reverses course to take the first one. Along the way, he bets on college basketball, drinks whisky, sniffs the clothing Isabella left behind, and is forced into working as muscle for a bookie named Greek (Delano), who oddly decides not to go by "The Greek," perhaps because he's not really Greek. Neither was The Greek though!

This wasn’t Wincott’s first time at the chopsocky rodeo -- see Martial Law II -- but it would mark his first time as the leading actor in your standard 1990s kickboxing tournament feature. It also marked his last time in this sort of movie, which might demonstrate that you can only go so far working in that sub-subgenre. Much to my surprise, this was also the first of only two films he did with PM Entertainment, the other being 1996’s Last Man Standing, which I maintain is one of their top three films ever. This is just further evidence that unlike a lot of chopsocky stars who stay in their lane, Jeff Wincott is full of surprises. He attended the prom in Prom Night. He did a romantic comedy with Adrien Brody. He even beat up Dave Matthews. Not surprisingly, Wincott is the best part about this movie, and I say this as someone who is perversely obsessed with Zubaz pants and poorly lit action scenes.

The action scenes are fine by PM Entertainment standards, which is to say, 'poor' by 1980s Hong Kong standards and 'borderline genius' by 1960s Star Trek episode standards. For me, there were two stand-out fights worth mentioning. The random alley confrontation between Angelo and a group of thugs led by stunt stalwart Art Camacho is punctuated by some humorous dialogue where Angelo details his losses from that day before fighting off his would-be muggers. It made sense in the context of the plot and added a light, self-aware touch to the hero’s circumstances. The other fight of significance is the climactic blow-off between Rico and Angelo. It has drama, some blood, and decent kicks that make both fighters look competent, but the fight is also preceded by one of the most blatantly homoerotic pre-match stare-downs I’ve ever seen. Apropos of nothing, Angelo decides to jump up on the top rope in his corner in a split-legged position while flexing, and Rico’s face lights up like he just got served a plate of filet mignon after two months of forced Tofurky dinners. While the tone is not exactly foreign to a genre where muscular dudes beat the shit out of each other, it was a weird moment.

We’ve seen some wacky tournament fighting before, but the tournament featured in Deadly Bet stretches the laws of time, fashion, and even spelling. Greek tells Angelo it’s a 50-man tournament. OK then. The tournament then unfolds over the course of a single night. I hate to drop math on you guys, but assuming it’s a single elimination tournament, 50 fighters means 49 matches. How the hell are you going to get through 49 matches in one night? The sartorial choices add further confusion to the proceedings. Some of the fighters, Angelo included, don the unfortunate combination of bike shorts with white cross-trainers, giving this tournament the appearance of uncool dads fighting each other to exhaustion. And last, one of the people keeping tabs on the brackets spells Rico’s name wrong on the whiteboard. Whoever organized this tournament (hint: it was Rico) performed no quality control whatsoever, and really should have hired an event planner.

Regardless of the significance of their roles, there are plenty of faces in the film that will be familiar to fans of action b-movies. Gary Daniels shows up for a brief, non-speaking role as the fighter who wins Angelo a bunch of Rico’s money to set the plot in motion. Ron Hall took a small part as a tournament fighter. Ian Jacklin shows up as a shaggy bartender who tangles with Angelo over unpaid debts to Greek. And even Gerald Okamura (listed in the credits as his Irish doppelgänger, Gerald O'Hamura) gets in the ring for an underground fight -- and wins!  Didn’t catch James Lew or Al Leong anywhere, but there *was* a scene where Isabella visits a hair salon. Maybe they were getting their hair did.


Deadly Bet is one of several love letters from PM Entertainment to the city of Las Vegas. But instead of affectionate words, the letter is actually just a 47-page storyboard of Jeff Wincott repeatedly kicking motherfuckers in the face. The boozy, sin-soaked Vegas kickboxing film seems to be an actual THING (recall To Be the Best) and I’m going to chase down more movies like this one.


Amazon, eBay.

4 / 7

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