If you’re going to rip off a movie, then it’s often considered smart to not mention the movie you’re ripping off at the start of the process. So, when “Champions” decided to go “hey, this is just like Enter The Dragon” alarm bells should start ringing. The sad thing is, it’s sort of a fun movie! I mean, it’s a long way from being a good one, but…anyway, read on and I’ll tell you all about it.
I’m half tempted to copy and paste this recap in from one of the dozens of movies we’ve covered with almost the same plot. Louis Mandylor (not from “Fist Of The North Star”, as I previously thought, that’s Costas) is William Rockman, the star of Terminal Combat, the world’s most brutal full-contact fighting sport. During one training session, he “accidentally” kills his sparring partner (seriously, we see him break the other guy’s neck, something tough to do by accident) and retires immediately. We catch up with him five years later as he has his own dojo, training kids to be respectful and kind martial artists.
Terminal Combat has gone underground, which we find out about thanks to a handily information rich news report, and from Rockman’s brother Ray, who’s decided to start competing himself. Evil fight promoter Max Brito (Danny Trejo, seemingly having a competition with himself to see how many times he could laugh like a deranged idiot) puts Ray up against his champion The King (UFC fighter and pro wrestler Ken Shamrock, in a very very rare acting performance), and of course Ray dies, which forces Rockman out of retirement and down into the world of “snuff” fighting.
Not original (at all), but solid. Since I just referred to UFC, I think it’s worth mentioning that this is maybe the first movie to use that so directly for inspiration. UFC had its beginning in 1993, and was enormously successful on PPV and home video, but by 1998 it was almost dead, with future Presidential candidate John McCain calling it human cock-fighting and leading the charge to get it banned almost everywhere. “Champions” actually uses that plot, with an evil Senator making it illegal so he can profit from its new underground tax-exempt nature. The “Enter The Dragon” comparisons really kick in when the fighters are basically locked up in a compound somewhere in the badlands of Mexico and are forced to befriend each other to survive.
There’s a lot of very rough edges in this movie. The late great Buck Flower does a super-awful Irish accent (along with a bar full of other “Irish” people), Kool Keith plays himself and raps about half his dialogue, and there’s a religious nut fighter who rails against sin at the same time as taking a Mexican lunatic’s dirty money to murder people. There’s also a bit later one where, shortly after being beaten unconscious by Rockman, that same religious nut is seen training in the weight area, completely unmarked, and even being friendly towards the guy who’d just schooled him. Plus, it’s got one of my favourite things, the mis-spelled advertising hoarding:
But on the other hand there’s plenty to like. Rockman’s way of befriending people by just being a decent human being is well-handled, and Shamrock, while not good by any stretch, really tries at his part. There’s also a lot of subplots weaved well into the main action – The King losing his wife and freedom due to gambling debts to Brito; there’s Sergeant Kimberly Pepitone, the cop who quits the force to join Terminal Combat and fight the guy who raped and murdered her partner; the romance between her and Rockman; the splendidly OTT turn from Brito’s assistant Mary (Robin Joi Brown, “Final Equinox”) and the people who run Brito’s IT department. For such a short movie, they pack plenty into it.
Director Peter Gathings Bunche’s history in low-rent erotica is evident in the love scenes and the casting of surgery-enhanced females, but it’s a fun, well-paced movie and it’s a shame his career went basically nowhere after this. It’s also pretty much the only writing credit for any of its three billed writers, which isn’t too unusual when you imagine them just flicking through the scripts for every other martial arts movie released in the past decade and taking all the bits they needed.
It’s on Youtube, and is free, so you’ve got many worse ways to spend a couple of hours. One final compliment – The King, as mentioned, loses his wife thanks to gambling debt, and she becomes Brito’s concubine. If either of them tries to escape, the other one dies. Now, they’re freed and reunited at the end (not much of a spoiler) but the movie at least has the good sense for them to just escape and not kiss, profess their love for each other or spend time in each other’s arms. In fact, I hope as soon as they’re back to civilization, she divorces him for being stupid enough to wager her to pay off his debts.
Rating: thumbs in the middle