Director: Isaac Florentine
Writers: Boaz Davidson, Michael D. Weiss
Cast: Michael Worth, Damian Chapa, Karen Kim, Hakim Alston, Marshall Teague, Sophia Crawford, Andy Cheng, Kate Connor, George Cheung
PLOT THICKENERI’m not sure when it happened, because slow evolutions are sometimes tough to observe as they're happening. As the direct to video action market began to slump, though, American chopsocky films left behind neon, rock ballads, and the breezy comfort of Zubaz pants to embrace the modern film landscape. Instead of the ambiguous threat of rich white old guys, some films turned their gazes towards things like unsecured nuclear arsenals in Eastern Europe. One of these films even traded in the smoke-filled halls of underground fighting for a methane-rich atmosphere that prevented the use of firearms. This is the world of 2001’s US Seals II, a landmark Nu Image film directed by Isaac Florentine, and for better or worse, a film completely devoid of actual seals.
Former PM Entertainment golden boy Michael Worth plays Casey Sheppard, a righteous lieutenant in a Navy SEALs unit under the command of Chief Frank Ratliff (Chapa). Stationed in Okinawa, Japan, the two are also classmates in a martial arts school led by Sensei Matsumura (Cheung). When Casey discovers that Ratliff has killed one of their sensei’s twin daughters (both played by Karen Kim), he tries to prevent his commander from burning the remains but gets knocked unconscious for his efforts. Matsumura, overcome with grief over his daughter’s death, commits suicide, and his surviving daughter, Kamiko, blames Casey and Frank for the grave misfortune.
Years later, Casey has left his service days and the tragedy of Okinawa behind. Ratliff has also been discharged and has transitioned into a full-time position as a terrorist, and his team of malcontents has just recently kidnapped nuclear physicist, Dr. Jane Burrows (Connor), to help them launch a Soviet nuclear warhead at the United States. Unless Uncle Sam digs into its deep pockets and pays up, that is.
This sets in motion a rapid and proportionate response from the military. Major Nathan Donner (Teague) feels a sense of personal responsibility, as the kidnapped doctor was under his supervision. Fortunately, the good doctor was “geotagged” and the military determines that she’s been transported to an island near Siberia. Unfortunately, this particular island has a large proportion of residual methane in the atmosphere from years of nuclear testing, and the slightest spark would set the entire area aflame. In order to rescue the doctor and prevent a nuclear war, Donner will need a team who can defeat the terrorists without the use of firearms.
He turns to Casey Sheppard, now a civilian and metal shop worker. Initially recalcitrant at the invitation, Casey takes on the mission when he finds out that Ratliff is the man behind it all. However, he’ll only do it on his own terms, with a team comprised of his hand-picked selections. His pal, Omar (Alston) will cost a pretty penny but is just the man for the job due to his martial arts skills. Convicted felon, Finley (Southworth) needs to be sprung from a chain gang but is up to the task. And despite her bitter feelings for Casey, Kumiko relishes the opportunity to get vengeance for her sister’s death. Can this team of misfits work together to save millions of lives from a nuclear strike? Or will someone light up a post-victory cigarette and set the whole shit-house up in flames?
Holy hell, this fucking movie. U.S. Seals II is that rare kind of film that you dig from the start, before growing increasingly irritated about its cheesy technical and plot-driven choices -- swoosh sound effects for mundane movements and atmospheric methane to explain away the use of firearms, among them -- and eventually just accepting it on its own merits, wacky warts and all. A lot of people have issues with Isaac Florentine. He’s one of the best directors of action cinema in the world but also has a tendency towards distracting indulgences that border on comic book gimmickry. Aside from the aforementioned devices, his direction is good here, and he provides second unit director Andy Cheng the opportunity to craft some incredible Hong Kong style choreography that makes the cast shine. The quality of the fighting in this film is off the charts for an American movie (aside from a clumsy and poorly lit underwater scuba fight that is every bit as fun to watch as it sounds).
Michael Worth, practioner of everything from Tang Soo Do to Escrima and Muay Thai, leads a terrific cast of veteran martial arts performers. Kickboxing champion and taekwondo black belt Hakim Alston (“The Machine” on WMAC Masters) didn’t do nearly enough films given his talent and charisma, but he’s fantastic here as the team’s wild card, Omar. I was disappointed with the amount of screen time Sophia Crawford had here given her legacy in Hong Kong film, but any time you get a performer of her talent in a U.S. film, good things happen, even if she’s relegated to “bad guy’s girlfriend” status as she is here. This also marks the first collaboration between Dan Southworth and Cheng himself, and the pair went on to design action sequences for Hollywood films such as 2003’s The Rundown and 2002’s The Scorpion King. In this film, however, they’re adversaries who beat the crap out of each other with a steel chain.
All that said, the most bad-ass kills are reserved for frequent Michael Worth collaborator and former Raiderette, Karen Kim (R.I.P.), pulling double duty as twin sisters Kamiko and Nikki. First off, she skydives out of an airplane with a katana blade! She ends her fights with garish brutality, slicing one unfortunate enemy in half from skull to groin, and stabbing another while doing an athletic back bend. Being that her sister was murdered and her father performed ritualistic suicide as a result, one could probably argue that this is simply her working through her personal issues. We all take different roads in life.
VERDICTOn the basis of fight quality alone, U.S. Seals II is a top 10 American martial arts film by a comfortable margin. The actors and stunt team are all up to the challenge of keeping up with complex Hong Kong style choreography, and the direction and editing make everyone look great. Throw in some colorful characters, a brisk pace, and some leftover bones, and baby, you got a stew going. Highly recommended.
AVAILABILITYDVD on Amazon or eBay.
6 / 7