Director: Terrence Winkless
Writer: Robert King
Cast: Don “The Dragon” Wilson, Joe Mari Avellana, Michael Shaner, Billy Blanks, Riley Bowman, Vic Diaz, Rob Kaman, Cris Aguilar, Kenneth Peerless, Ned Hourani
PLOT THICKENERAfter roughly three decades of watching films, I’ve taken away one cinematic life lesson above all others. Not “follow your heart” or “hope can set you free.” If you’re receiving money to take a fall in a kickboxing fight in a foreign country, just throw the fight! Once all parties have agreed to it, nothing good can come from flipping the script and reneging. Maybe you’re cool with winning the fight, spending the prize money on booze, getting killed in an alley in a foreign country, and getting your brother mixed up in the sleazy underworld of fixed fights to the death, but I ain’t. So, if you need a short 80-minute primer on this lesson for reinforcement, allow me to fix you up with 1989’s Bloodfist. It’ll set you straight.
This is the film debut of Don “The Dragon” Wilson. Most of you will know him from his successful professional kickboxing career and his starring roles in a prolific string of 1990s direct-to-video martial arts films. A handful of you will know him from that time he dressed up in neon and got whooped by Chris O’Donnell’s character in Batman Forever. Here, he’s playing Jake Raye, an unremarkable former boxer teaching self-defense classes to kids at a gym in California with his friend and trainer, Hal (Peerless). Due to a prior act of bodily sacrifice, he’s down one whole kidney, but up one half-brother, Michael (Hourani), himself a fighter based in the Philippines.
That was nice while it lasted, wasn’t it? Following a fixed fight where he refused to take the fall, Michael is tracked down after a late night out in Manila and gets killed by a shadowy figure. Good news travels quickly, like sound, but bad news travels faster, like me running after a recently departed taco truck. Jake receives a phone call about his brother and before you can say, “avenging sibling” he’s on a plane to Manila with a bag filled with t-shirts from his boxing gym. I have no idea why that’s relevant here, I just thought it was strange enough to mention.
Action movies with a sheltered American tough guy who travels to an exotic foreign land usually begin that introduction with one of two things: a distracting scene of locals gambling on bug fights, or a good old-fashioned pickpocketing. This film has both, in that exact order. After recovering his stolen bag of shirts, Jake eventually stumbles upon an outdoor training compound and gets chased for his voyeurism. He learns from a nearby random vagrant and landscape painter named Kwong (Avellana) that it’s a highly exclusive fighting club called the Red Fist, and their annual tournament, the “Ta-Chang” is being held soon.
Parallel to that fast friendship, Jake meets a fellow American named “Baby” Davies (Shaner) during a mano-a-mano bar fight manufactured by Davies himself (don’t ask -- gambling problems). Jake visits his pad and meets his sister, Nancy (Bowman), the kind of big-haired blonde who performs seductive slow-motion rooftop aerobics in a unitard as a matter of habit. You know the type. This on-screen relationship set off what would become a legendary run of gratuitous Don “The Dragon” love scenes rivaled only by Jean Claude Van Damme himself. Was this contractual? Or did distributors get a look at this movie and demand topless Dragon scenes in all his films, ad infinitum?
Jake gets a hint that he must enter the Red Fist tournament to find his brother’s killer, and as luck would have it, Kwong is a martial arts trainer and has an “in” with the Red Fist group. In a colorful sequence that provides equal parts character back story and pure machismo, Kwong guides Jake through the Red Fist training center as the competitors prepare for tournament battle. There’s the mini-mulleted Black Rose (Blanks), a fierce fighter whose intensity is matched only by his hatred for unbroken bricks. And who can forget Chin Woo (Aguilar), Vietnamese napalm survivor and total wrecking ball? Then there’s Raton (Kaman), a German music fan who spars and fights with his earphones in at all times. Among all these different fighters is a consistent theme: they not only punch, but kick, headbutt, knee, and throw elbows. Jake is a boxer, so Kwong must train up his deficiencies in order for him to contend with the field.
Stories that focus on a mentor-student dynamic hinge upon two main things: the push-and-pull tension between the characters, and the sadistic training methods that will force the student to achieve his or her fullest potential. Jake and Kwong have a nice, easygoing chemistry together and it’s easy to buy into their partnership (Avellana played a similar mentor role in 1978’s Death Force). The slightly more bizarre proposition is that the film’s central character -- played by a legendary kickboxing champion -- has no idea how to kick. Luckily, Kwong knows just how to teach him. Because if running up dirt hills, having local kids throw rotten fruit at you, and pummeling huge bags of goat shit doesn’t prepare you for the underground kickboxing fight of your life, what will?
The action in the film is solid on balance, but some fight scenes are better than others. The highlight was seeing Wilson and Blanks duke it out in a short but compelling fight that made interesting use of camera angles and undercranking to make both guys look good through crisp choreography and a fast pace. At the back-end of the film were two surprisingly violent confrontations, one of which involves a fighter being pinned to a metal railing and beaten before having his earring ripped out, and another that features a brutal act I can only refer to as “pointy thing impalement.” It was probably scrap metal.
This isn't a knock: Bloodfist is the sort of film that is so cookie-cutter in its story and presentation that you can trick yourself into thinking you’ve seen it before. Even the title itself -- mashed together from two random words -- evokes a hundred other movies in the realm of action cinema. (Teddy Page was responsible for four such “Blood____” films but I’m not going to ruminate on the “fist” film titles because of the frightening implications it has for my Google referral keywords). Perhaps that’s what led CNN (of all news outlets) to include it in a January 2015 listicle feature about Hollywood’s most violent films. Sandwiched between Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Goodfellas, you’ll find Bloodfist, 1989 direct-to-video Filipino Roger Corman production. Maybe the author was just a Don “The Dragon” fan?
VERDICTSibling vengeance. Underground fighting. Hammy training montages. The bait-and-switch VHS cover. And a ton of sequels, some related, some not. There may be no more well-rounded representation of the 1980s and 90s DTV chopsocky experience than Bloodfist. Recommended.
AVAILABILITYOn disc at Amazon, eBay.
5 / 7