Director: Robert Clouse
Writer: Robert Clouse, Emil Farkas, George Goldsmith
Cast: Joe Lewis, Sonny Barnes, Richard Norton, Benny Urquidez, Pam Huntington, Bong Soo Han, Ron Hayden, Mel Novak, Michael Prince, Bob Schott
PLOT THICKENERThere is a heavily documented rumor that Joe Lewis was Bruce Lee’s first choice to play the part of “Colt” in The Way of the Dragon. Lewis didn’t agree to the role -- there may have even been a personal falling out involved -- but he was ultimately replaced with Chuck Norris, who went on to a fine b-film career and meme-worthy legend. Some fans of the action film genre will look upon this rumor and conclude that had the film been produced as it was originally planned, Joe Lewis would have become every bit the action star as Norris, if not better, given his good looks and decent acting chops. There’s just one problem with this perspective. Joe Lewis did not like any of his martial arts films. He did not enjoy working with action directors. I am not entirely sure he enjoyed acting, but he definitely hated Hollywood. This means that he almost certainly did not like Force: Five, the 1981 film in which he starred, nor was it likely that he enjoyed working with the film’s director, Robert Clouse, who also directed what is arguably the greatest martial arts film in cinema history, Enter the Dragon. I am here to tell you that it is perfectly acceptable to enjoy Force: Five, even if its star abhorred it and the very industry which made it possible.
The 1970s and early 80s were a time of spiritual awakening in Western culture, in which a number of New Age movements rose to prominence as alternatives to conventional religion. The “World Church” of Reverend Rhee (Han) is an isolated group of idealists. Members all wear the same plain white garb adorned with a bullhead patch. Known as the “Palace of Celestial Tranquility,” their home base has all the markings of a peaceful paradise. Members can be observed playing volleyball or creating pottery when they’re not attending the Reverend’s lectures, snoozing in a tent, or being tortured with needles by the Reverend and his guards. Wait, what?
In this paradise, not all is as it seems. The Church’s headquarters are located on a remote island “free from intervention from any government.” Its followers are mostly young people from wealthy families and are obligated to pledge all material possessions (i.e., inheritances) to the good Reverend’s cause. While Rhee is adored by his Church followers, he is deplored by outsiders. The latest attempt on his life is met with swift retribution, as the would-be assassin (Novak) is poked for information (literally!) before being set free in an underground maze where he discovers that the Church’s symbolic emblem isn’t just a fashion statement. His benefactor, William Stark (Prince), is the veritable thorn in the Reverend’s side. Even after Rhee’s henchmen irreparably broke both his legs, Stark continued his efforts to disrupt what he believes is a dangerous cult.
Following the failure of his amateur hitman, Stark tries a different approach: hire martial artist, Jim Martin (Lewis), give him the resources he needs, and get the hell out of the way. The debonair fighter requests five “very special people” for a mission to spring the daughter of a U.S. senator from Rhee’s death grip and bring the cult down once and for all. And by “special people,” we’re talking about characters with traits ready-made for quick introductions in an action movie trailer. Billy Ortega (Urquidez) is the martial artist with kicks nearly as fast as his mouth! Lockjaw (Barnes) is a powerhouse with the strength of ten men! Ezekiel (Norton) is the fighting gambler you don’t bet against! Laurie (Huntington) is all brains and blonde fury! Willard (Hayden) is … well, he can fly a helicopter. If you’ve lost count, this crew is comprised of six people. Again, the title of this film is Force: Five.
Made a full eight years after his classic Enter the Dragon, the film finds Clouse during a declining phase in his directorial powers. It’s a weird thing to say that the director of perhaps the greatest English-language martial arts film of all time never made another great martial arts film, but facts are facts. The films that followed, especially his 1980s output, comprise a minefield of wacky qualities. He put live Daschunds in rat costumes for the 1982 rodent horror Deadly Eyes, tried to make combat gymnastics happen with 1985’s Gymkata, and expected people to pay money to see Jackie Chan walk from a car to a restaurant in 1980’s Battle Creek Brawl. In light of these films, the premise of Force: Five -- where a small group of fighting experts must infiltrate a religious cult to rescue the daughter of a U.S. senator and oh, by the way, avoid a man-killing bull who roams a hidden maze -- starts to look mundane by comparison. A cinematic manifesto against religious freedom? Progressive multicultural-men-on-a-mission action storytelling? A cautionary tale against keeping wild bulls indoors? Nah. It’s probably best to watch this breezy 96 minutes without searching for any deep meaning or critical statements from an auteur. Just call it solid low-budget action filmmaking.
Clouse does what he can to make this film interesting by giving each of the heroes a short introductory showcase before they come together. He keeps the story moving at a brisk pace with different flavors of action set-pieces: motorcycle chases, bar fights, prison breaks, etc. The fighters are great -- Norton and Urquidez in particular look good -- and the situations are occasionally interesting, but the execution in the fight scenes isn’t always there. Like the film on the whole, the action is solid and mostly enjoyable but not especially memorable. Richard Norton mowed some dudes down with water from a prison fire hose. Water as a weapon is usually cool.