I think we’ve reached the ultimate ISCFC movie. In terms of our martial arts reviews, this represents a coming together of elements of almost everything. Let’s list the main names:
Jalal Merhi (“Tiger Claws”, plus he has a cameo and is as terrible as ever)
Olivier Gruner (“Nemesis”)
Loren Avedon (“No Retreat: No Surrender 2”, many others)
When I saw the opening credits, I was so excited! What I assumed would be just another “guy avenges dead brother in illicit martial arts tournament” movie would be so much more. What would Merhi do with the director’s chair, and would it be just as crazily incompetent as the acting and producing he did in the “Tiger Claws” trilogy?
Oh, you know he doesn’t disappoint! Olivier Gruner is Dirk Longstreet, a college athletics teacher. His younger brother Jeremy is a student there, and Jeremy’s girlfriend Denise is becoming increasingly unhappy with Jeremy’s disappearances. Dirk has to go and rescue her from a bunch of drunk assholes in a bar, and that’s when he’s seen by Kwan, the undefeated champion of The Circuit (Denise’s friend, even drunker than her, is either Ali Larter or an extremely good lookalike, but I can’t see why an already famous Larter would do an uncredited cameo for Jalal Merhi, so I’m probably wrong).
Genesse is Kwan’s sidekick Vixton Hack, the public face of the Circuit; and Avedon is Detective Sykes, a cop who’s interested in bringing them down. Sykes does absolutely nothing and could comfortably be removed from the movie and cause no problems at all – plus, it’d be a slightly shorter experience. Rounding out the cast is Merhi as the editor of a newspaper (who gets one of his scoops from just watching the TV news, a wonderful moment) and Gail Harris as Nicole Kent, ace investigative reporter and Dirk’s love interest. She’s from Batley, just up the road from where I’m writing this, and her local (to me) accent shines through quite a lot.
Turns out Dirk is a former champion of The Circuit, undefeated and completely uninjured during his reign, and he’s the only person who’s ever managed to “escape”. Kwan wants to prove his superiority but, knowing Dirk won’t return by being asked politely, sets an oddly complicated plan in motion, which involves Vixton loaning Jeremy money to bet on a fight, then fixing the fight so Jeremy loses, then when Jeremy can’t pay him back forcing him to fight in the Circuit. This plan relies on Jeremy betting against the undefeated Kwan, by the way. It must be said that their plan trails off around here, and the only reason Dirk fights is down to the death of Billy Drago – the crippled trainer who’s secretly a good guy and helps him get ready.
Okay, if you’re reading this site, chances are you’ve seen at least one movie of this sort. Brother dies, hero has to train in order to defeat the villain. Simple, effective, and relatively tough to mess up. “The Circuit”, on the other hand, throws every bit of logic related to this archetype out of the window. Let’s have a go at breaking it down:
Act 1 – introducing the characters, and killing off the “brother”
Act 2 – hero trains in new martial arts style
Act 3 – revenge!
“The Circuit” keeps Jeremy alive, though, and has Drago be the sacrifice, way too close to the end, which leads to the odd image of Dirk training at a point in the movie when he has no real reason to do so. In fact, Dirk could just call the police as soon as he knows where the Circuit is, as his actions past that point have no real impact on how it ends. Also, they spend a decent amount of time at the beginning telling us that Dirk is a basically invincible fighter, so the whole training thing seems a bit on the pointless side, especially given he doesn’t use any of the “new” techniques he’s been taught in the big battle at the end. In case you think I’m being a bit facetious, Drago tells him “you’re using too many punches, we need to train you to do one punch, one knockout”. How many one-punch knockouts do you think feature in the rest of the action? Are you feeling the confusion of watching this movie yet? Act 1 sort of sloppily carries on til past the hour mark, act 2 is pointless and act 3 lasts about five minutes.
We could also talk weird tonal shifts and how they grate with the overall flow of the movie (such as it is). Nicole invites herself over for a “picnic” with Dirk, which inspires a whole scene where Dirk hurriedly cleans his house, set to comedy-style music. Okay, he’s horny, but…he’s in training for a fight to the death to save his brother! Then there’s Kwan, who after every victory…can’t quite believe I’m writing this…does a little Michael Jackson dance. He just killed someone! I get the feeling Merhi was all “yes, this is what normal Americans do”.
Let’s go deeper. If you get a sport where one team or individual dominates, you run the risk of people getting bored and stopping spending their money on tickets or betting. Observe the Schumacher-dominated years of Formula 1 or any long undefeated period in boxing for an example of this. But not the Circuit, apparently! Kwan dominates (via cheating, which the opening credits handily gives us a clue about) and if I was going to a show, I’d just bet on him. I wouldn’t win a lot, but I’d definitely win, and if everyone did the same, the Circuit would be out of business immediately. Kwan’s fights also seem crazily one-sided, to the point I wrote down “who’s paying money and risking arrest to go and see this?”
I haven’t even talked about the fighting yet! It’s a relatively early example of MMA being used instead of just straight kung-fu or kickboxing, so Gruner does grapples and submission moves…it’s not terrible, and Gruner is decent. But the fights are all shot identically and don’t advance the story (most of the fights don’t even feature cast members, oddly); and they don’t even have Avedon or Genesse (both excellent screen fighters) kick any ass! But they did hire Bruce Buffer, the UFC announcer, to do the same job for the Circuit, which was a fun idea (even if Buffer’s introductions sounded like they were written by a crazy person and his phrasing was bizarre).
Mix up some bad action, terrible acting, and a plot that makes less than no sense, and you’ve got yourself a winner. And we’ve got two sequels to look forward to!
Rating: thumbs up