12.11.2017

Sword of Heaven (1985)

PLOT: An ancient sword forged by Zen monks from a meteorite falls into the hands of a paramilitary madman. Can a police trainer based in Los Angeles recover it, or will he be too busy Googling the differences between comets, asteroids, meteors, and space rocks, to get the job done?

Director: Byron Meyers
Writers: James Bruner, Britt Lomond, William O’Hagan, Joseph J. Randazzo
Cast: Tadashi Yamashita, Mel Novak, Gerry Gibson, Mika, Joseph J. Randazzo, William Ghent, Wynston A. Jones, Bill “Superfoot” Wallace, Gerald Okamura, Karen Sheperd



PLOT THICKENER

Among the actors who played villains opposite some of the biggest action stars of the 1970s and 80s (e.g., Chuck Norris, Michael Dudikoff, Jim Kelly, Bruce Lee) there are few who loom larger than Mel Novak and Tadashi Yamashita. (Bolo Yeung is one of those few). Both actors played important foils to heroes in major studio films, but they also have a tendency to get lost in the shuffle when discussing the era, in part because neither of them got major leading roles as a point of differentiation. The 1985 film Sword of Heaven attempts to rectify that by casting one man opposite the other, thereby dooming one of them to the inescapable fate of playing evil men ad infinitum, despite his possible wishes to star in a comedy or a cheery musical.

Hundreds of years ago, a meteorite fell to earth and zen monks forged a sword from the remains. The custodial family for the sword was the Kobiashi family, and their modern day descendants include Toshiro (Gent) and his daughter, Satoko (Mika). However, the sword was recently acquired illicitly by a self-proclaimed “collector” and former special forces soldier named Dirk St. John (Novak). These days, he runs an extortion ring in Los Angeles that targets the well-off rather than the super-rich, because it tends to attract less attention from the authorities. If the targets don’t pay, Dirk’s weapons of choice are a knife or his trusty garrote. As he tells his army of paramilitary trainees, these close-range weapons inspire fear, and “fear is our greatest weapon.” As he repeatedly demonstrates, though, knives and garrotes are also great weapons.


A Japanese police trainer and motorcycle enthusiast, Tadashi (Yamashita) works with the Los Angeles Police Department and educates them in the martial arts. One of his students and friends on the force, Patrick (Gibson) is investigating the recent spat of killings, which leads him  to a brothel where Satoko works as a prostitute. During a lunch stop in the middle of the woods where he rides his bike, Tadashi crosses paths with Toshiro, who finds him sufficiently samurai to be chosen to retrieve the sword from St. John and his gang. All these random threads end up converging in the misshapen cable-knit sweater that is Sword of Heaven.

This was a weird one. The first half-hour or so is a bit of a mess and it was difficult to tell where things were going. The first three scenes alone were randomly sized pieces from completely different puzzles. A meteorite falls to earth, monks turn it into a sword -- scene. A woman goes to her sports car and gets strangled by a creep in the backseat -- scene. A mysterious figure is motorcycling all over an endless landscape of sand dunes -- scene. Stick with it though, because a bounty of strange treasures awaits. As the plot develops, the pace really picks up in the second act and the film finishes quite strong, with solid fight scenes (e.g., Bill Wallace vs. Tadashi Yamashita) and a climactic sword fight in a shallow river bed.


Mel Novak is certainly the best actor in this cast and he plays a fine villain -- he’s both intense and capable -- but he’s not even the most treacherous jerk on display. That would be Cain, the sadistic one-gloved pimp, played by screenwriter Joseph Randazzo. By pulling double-duty as both the scene setter and the character, Randazzo gives himself some of the most cringe-worthy lines of dialogue in the film, almost all of which involve a misogynist, homophobic, or racial slur. (Because apparently it wasn’t enough to throw a wheelchair-bound nun off a cliff, or terrorize the prostitutes in his employ and keep them under the constant threat of being forcibly shot up with heroin). By any standard, this sleazebag is extra sleazy and deserving of his fate.

Keeping with the theme of strange choices, Yamashita joins the ranks of Bolo Yeung and Chris Ramsey as actors in martial arts b-movies who used cross-dressing as a not-so-subtle disguise. In this particular case, Tadashi attempts to infiltrate the “Pink Poodle” rock club -- with a live performance by an actual band called The Ninja -- to locate Cain as a way to get to Satoko. Tadashi neglects to bring a change of clothes and remains in the dress for a good amount of time after this scene, even fighting off some enemies. Could he have done all of this without dressing as a foxy brunette in a red cocktail dress? We’ll never know.


There’s an air of mystery around this film, and not just because it features a mystical glowing sword. IMDb lists this film twice, with one title stub for 1981 and another for 1985, each with the same director and cast. The 1981 version has no release date and lists LD Video as a distributor. The 1985 release was put out the following year by Trans World Entertainment. If I may put on my librarian’s cardigan for just a moment to discuss information integrity, there could be lots of reasons for this. The main one is bad data; IMDb is somewhat ambiguous about the sources of their information, but it tends to be a combination of “official” data feeds but also site visitors like you and I. A VHS distributed by LD Video is listed on Amazon with a release date of *1991* so we might just chalk it up to an input error and a source/user ignoring or overlooking the existing title stub on IMDb for the 1985 version. I had gotten my hopes up that this film was initially made as a short just four years earlier, but that’s simply not the case. All of this is a long way of saying: trust no one.

The enigmatic fog around the film persists. She’s listed in the credits as “Valley Girl Patient” but I can neither confirm nor deny whether Karen Sheperd actually appears in this movie. Why any filmmaker would cast a world-class martial artist only to have her playing a bit part without any fighting is beyond me, but this is similar to the situation with 1984’s Furious, where Loren Avedon was listed in the cast but was all but absent in the actual film. Four years prior, Yamashita pulled Sheperd into the production of 1981’s The Shinobi Ninja when she was looking for film work, and that may have been the case here as well, but I can only conclude that her scene was left on the cutting room floor. Sad! That’s your cue to start writing your “Karen Sheperd as a martial arts Valley Girl getting evaluated for strep throat” fan fiction.


In putting Yamashita in a dress, leading bad guys on violent motorcycle chases, fighting tons of recyclable enemies, and pairing him with a stereotypical Irish cop simply for the high comedy of it all, this film was trying to portray him as a well-rounded action star who could do a little bit of everything. He doesn’t succeed in every area equally, but it was a fine effort that demonstrated he was every bit as deserving of a lead role as other martial artists of his era.

VERDICT

As is the case with any film that’s difficult to find in a watchable format, you need to put a figure on how much time, money, and energy you’re willing to expend to see it. Sword of Heaven is most certainly something for which you could find a torrent, and that might be the way to go if you can’t find a reasonably priced hard copy (VHS versions run in the $30-$40 range). Here’s what I’ll say: it features some decent villains, a cool sword gimmick, and solid fights towards the back-end. It also has a handful of those nutty, WTF kitchen-sink moments I find myself raving about so often. Worth a watch if you stumble into it.

AVAILABILITY

Hard to find on physical media; VHS or grey market DVD only.

4.5 / 7

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