Youtube Film Club: Expect To Die (1997)

We here at the ISCFC are long-time haters of Jalal Merhi. He’s perhaps the worst actor to ever headline multiple movies – he made his money from his family’s jewel business and plowed all that cash into making his own starring vehicles, always producing them, and often directing too. It’s really hard to over-emphasise just how bad an actor he is, though, seemingly unable to portray any emotion or deliver a line in anything other than a monotone.

But, he knows how to surround himself with actors we like, and he’s at least competent as a director, so here we are, on our…tenth?…Merhi review. Today’s movie features David “not the British character actor” Bradley and Evan Lurie, both high-quality B-movie veterans, and tells a story of virtual reality, managing to get the future weirdly right (there’s a VR game coming out this year for the Oculus, PS4 and Steam called “I Expect You To Die”, coincidentally enough). Apart from the thing about VR killing people, I guess? Also, it’s not to be confused with the previous year’s “Expect No Mercy”, also about virtual reality being too powerful, also with people fighting inside it, also starring Merhi.


Things kick off with a military test of virtual reality software, where a soldier dies because the VR was too real – a solid standard 90s plot device. The guy who invented the software is Dr Vincent MacIntyre (Bradley, completely bizarrely miscast) and he’s furious that the military want to cancel the research; and he’s even furiouser that his company kicks him out because he’s a loose cannon. This is tied into his dead father, who was a Colonel who was framed for murder by the military establishment? This completely undeveloped plot thread makes “Expect To Die” feel like the sequel to an unmade movie.

Luckily, both the Army and the software company are okay with MacIntyre selling the software to a criminal, I think?


Hold on, I need to try and establish how confusing this whole thing is. There’s an illegal arms sale in a warehouse, where all these wealthy bad guys have women on their arms as nothing more than set dressing (Merhi is among the most sexist of the 90s action crowd, no mean feat), but one of the bad guys wants to pay for the merch with computer disks, which has “Expect To Die” on it. This is the game created by MacIntyre’s old company, but is a normal “Mortal Kombat” style fighting game – we learn this thanks to Merhi’s girlfriend, a computer programmer / plot device (she gets kidnapped later on). The virtual reality “game”, with the same name, is being developed in secret for some criminals, but why is either never mentioned or I wasn’t paying attention for those five seconds. How much profit is there in a game which just straight-up kills you?


Sorry, I’m getting ahead of myself. Merhi’s female partner gets shot (while in her underwear, for the flimsiest of reasons) so he needs a new partner. Evan Lurie! There’s a bunch of references to Lurie getting shot when they were partners before, which again leads me to believe this script is the sequel to something which never got made? Anyway, Lurie tries his best with the dead weight of his co-star but it’s tough at times.

What’s most important to note about this movie is it’s a complete ego trip for Jalal Merhi. He’s got a gorgeous female partner but he’s devoted to his wife; he’s also the best martial artist in the world. Want to know how I know this? Evan Lurie, a talented screen fighter, only has one fight scene, and David Bradley, who was the star of an entire action franchise, doesn’t fight at all. Can’t distract from the star! Merhi kicks ass all over the place, of course, and even shows off how buff he is in the VR bootcamp program he’s plugged into, but even then, there’s a weirdly small amount of martial arts in a movie with three martial arts stars as the top billed actors, especially as the plot seems designed to have fighting in it?


This is a really bad one. Even though it’s got two great action stars in it, it uses them terribly – Lurie really ought to have had a few starring roles, not second banana to a charisma-vacuum like Merhi; and it’s interesting seeing Bradley as the bad guy, even if he’s given a really weird character. But everything else just feels like it was thrown together at the last minute, mostly at random. The number of dropped plot threads might be, in the hands of anyone with a modicum of skill, a joke in and of themselves, but here you’re pretty certain they just didn’t consider why anyone would care about anything other than Merhi being the ultimate badass.

Definitely one of the more confusing 90s action B-movies. Worth watching for that purpose? I don’t know. Merhi’s previous directorial effort, “Operation Golden Phoenix”, was quite good, and “Expect No Mercy” was at least fun and didn’t take itself too seriously. This is po-faced, not very exciting and probably not worth your time (even if it is available for free).

Rating: thumbs down


Operation Golden Phoenix (1994)

Jalal Merhi made a good movie!

I’ll give it a second to let that sink in. Yes, the charisma supermassive-black-hole, the man with no appreciable talents in front of or behind the camera, who started making movies because he liked martial arts and wanted to be a star and obviously he was never getting hired by mainstream productions, the man who managed once to be out-acted by Billy Blanks (!) and whose work is stuffed to the brim with sexism so rotten it’ll make your eyes water, made one good movie.

And the weird thing is, it’s by far his least well-known. Only available on VHS (I think), almost never shown on TV, my copy is recorded from obscure British cable channel “Movies 4 Men”. It co-stars ISCFC Hall of Famer Loren Avedon, James “David Lo Pan off of Big Trouble In Little China” Hong, and a delightfully wacky bunch of minor actors; has some great filming locations and a plot that just rips along. I mean, the last few things on this list are what you’d normally expect from any half-decent movie, but they’re far from being a given.

Merhi and Avedon are Mark Assante and Ivan Jones, agents for some government agency or other, and I think they’ve just rescued a bunch of artefacts from somewhere. If there’s anyone who reads this review and goes “I didn’t like it because he couldn’t remember where they rescued the stuff from at the beginning” then I will eat my hat.

Unfortunately, Avedon is bad to the bone, and has thrown in his lot with international bad guy Mr Chang (Hong). There’s a couple of amulets which, when re-united, are a map to a fabulous haul of treasure, and now the baddies have one of them. They blow up the rest of the stuff and blame it on Assante, so he’s on the run with the cops in hot-ish pursuit and the bad guys trying to engineer it so that he goes and steals the second amulet. His old buddy the Professor has a wife who’s cheating on him with Chang, too, so there’s plenty of people milling about Assante who want to do him ill.

That amulet is in Lebanon, so off we go to the actual Beirut to do some filming – presumably helped by Merhi’s Lebanese parentage. And it’s a fantastic spot to film, too, so kudos to them for getting permission. But Assante has to get a fake passport in order to fly, and it made me nostalgic for the olden days as he goes to a guy with papers and tweezers to put the photograph in place and all that. Damn you, terrorism, for spoiling our fun!

The beautiful Princess Tara has the other amulet, and Assante must try and infiltrate her household in order to steal it – but don’t worry, he picks the dumbest way possible (I’ll leave you to figure that out for yourself, should you choose to watch it). More twists and turns! Him going back to the Princess for help and getting a sidekick, the Princess’s ass-kicking sister Angelica! Fight scenes around ancient ruins! The vague idea that Jones is actually sort of a good guy! For about two scenes before the movie forgets and just makes him bad again!

What I enjoyed most about “Operation Golden Phoenix” (other than the fact there’s no golden phoenix in it) is how it never slows down enough to let you think about how daft it all is. He got permission to film in Beirut so knocked up a bit of script that gave him a reason to go there (well, the script was provided by long-time associate J Stephen Maunder, but you get the idea). Avedon probably improvised the “maybe he’s not that bad” stuff, because it makes zero sense in the wider context of things and he’s got form as an actor who likes to go into business for himself. The reveal of how they manage to match up the pendants to find the treasure has attracted some real anger from other reviewers, but…I guess my standards are lower, because it just washed over me. Like, I expect 1993 computers to be able to do wacky stuff like that to move the plot along.

The fight scenes are awful, because Merhi liked filming himself more than just about anything, and he’s in almost all of them. He often just flies through the air, visibly not making contact with anything, and we’re supposed to believe the person flying backwards in the next shot was affected by that “kick”. Avedon’s stuff is fine, but then he’s a professional.

I was very surprised at how much work he gave the women in this – he doesn’t give himself any love scenes, but both main Princesses are very strong characters. Okay, it’s not perfect, but we can’t have everything.

I don’t want to praise it too much. A lot of it is, admittedly, Merhi stood around delivering terrible lines in the worst way possible (he really is among the least able people to have ever called themselves “actor”), and it makes no sense if you think about it for more than a tenth of a second. But it’s rarely boring and has a great villainous turn from Avedon, so I’m happy to call this the best Merhi movie ever, and if you’re desperate to see one example of the man’s work, make it this one.

Rating: thumbs up

Youtube Film Club: Expect No Mercy (1995)


In the mind of any reasonable viewer, “Expect No Mercy” should inspire dread. Starring Billy Blanks and Jalal Merhi, two of the least charismatic, least able actors to ever headline multiple movies, and it’s based around the concept of virtual reality so you know it’s going to be packed with 90s CGI effects. But, and I was as surprised as you, it’s very enjoyable! Join me, let’s talk trashy martial arts movies and have some fun.

There’s a surprisingly fun opening scene when a group of black-clad guys wipe out the home of what looks like a drug dealer. Certainly some bad guys, so it’s quite surprising later on when we discover that these “heroes” are actually the villains. Okay, moderately surprising. One of the villains, watching a guy get into his sports car with a beautiful woman, admiringly notes “that is one smooth dude”, a line I wish I could use without irony in 2016. How else will people know they’re smooth dudes? But most credit must go to the leader of the assassination squad, Damian, played by Anthony DeLongis. He’s one of the great “That Guy” actors, and I know him best from two first-rate performances as different characters on “Highlander: The Series” (but he’s been in everything) – he shows here that he deserved a much better career, playing the evil villain part with just the right amount of over-the-top-ness.


Anyway, the plot, such as it is, revolves around Federal agent Justin Vanier (Blanks), who’s sent undercover at the Virtual Arts Academy, an extraordinarily well-funded school for teaching people martial arts using virtual reality headsets. Apparently, you can compress decades of fight training into just two years with their technology! There’s a guy on the inside – Eric (Merhi), one of the instructors; and Eric sort of has a thing going with one of the other instructors, Vicki (Laurie Holden, aka Andrea from “The Walking Dead”). Remember this fact. She’s an instructor, at a martial arts academy.


The VR machine goes up to a maximum of level 5, where the virtual opponents do double the normal damage, and of course Justin defeats level 5 on his first try because this movie is in a hurry to get to the good stuff. Thanks to Eric’s tech skills, they discover all about the secret assassinations the school has been carrying out, and (weirdly quickly, when you think about it) the head of the school, Warbeck (Wolf Larson) discovers their discovery. So it’s them, first trying to escape from Warbeck, then trying to stop the next assassination his people are about to carry out.


Simple, and very effective. From our lofty future vantage point, the graphics will give you many laughs in the first half – the “virtual lecture” given by Eric and Vicki, which could very easily have just been given in a normal classroom, is a particular highlight. And there’s even some relatively clever prediction of the future, as Warbeck loudly exclaims that the future is information, and if he controls that, he controls the world. He should have just set up a search engine and a social media site, he needn’t have worried about the crime stuff.


Towards the end, the VR rules are thrown out of the window because…er…well, I’m sure it’s important. The villain has a very long monologue about how the Government is bad, and Billy Blanks gets to say the second-greatest line immediately after killing someone with a steam-pipe ever (I’ll leave you to discover what that line is).


It’s just action, action, action. Director Zale Dalen had lots of TV credits to his name and not many movies, but knew the strengths of his stars and steered into them (hint: it’s not acting). As well as fighting all the wacky bad guys in VR, there’s wave after wave of trainee assassins to contend with, and both Blanks and Merhi spend over half their time on screen kicking ass. You do begin to wonder why no-one in this enormous base has a gun, but that’s small potatoes. Writer J Stephen Maunder is a Merhi regular, and is sure to give his employer (Merhi produced this) plenty of good stuff to do.


A few casting bits of trivia make this movie a little more explicable. Oliver Gruner was supposed to be in the Billy Blanks role, but pulled out right before filming started, leaving Blanks the last minute substitute (to be fair, he could have had ten years to prepare, it wouldn’t have made him a better actor). And the Warbeck role was going to be Gary Daniels, a superb martial artist and decent actor; but the distributors wanted an American in the role I guess, so Wolf Larson got it. He’s cool as hell, by the way, and has a great time overacting his part to the max.


If you have any love in your heart for B-movies, then you’ll love this. It’s simple, direct, cheesy, filled with one-liners delivered terribly by Billy Blanks, lots of fun, lots of action, and races along. You won’t regret it.


But there’s one thing which grates really badly, and that’s Merhi’s treatment of women. After watching the “Tiger Claws” series of movies, where he does all the work and legit world champion martial artist Cynthia Rothrock is mostly just along for the ride, this is pretty obvious, but it’s so painfully apparent here that it needs commenting on. When our heroes escape and go to stop the assassination, the first thing Eric says to Vicki is “stay here”, leaving her crouched with a worried expression on her face while the men do all the fighting. Yes, the same woman who’s an instructor at a martial arts academy! Then, she gets kidnapped and taken back to the base, where she’s hung off the side of a building by a rope; if you watch the movie, you can see the surface she’s up against is rough, with lots of areas to get purchase. What I’m saying is, a trained martial artist should be able to climb up the side of the building easily (heck, I’d give it a go, and I’m fat and middle-aged), but because Merhi cannot conceive of women being able to do anything, leaves her there to be rescued, roughly equivalent to silent movies where the damsel in distress was tied to train tracks.

Her revenge was having a decent career

Her revenge was having a decent career

So, appalling sexism aside…


Rating: thumbs up


PS – Looking up J Stephen Maunder, I noticed a movie which is due out this year, apparently, called “Beyond The Game”. Look at the cast list, like a B-movie “Expendables” – Armand Assante; Chamillionaire; Mark Dacascos; Olivier Gruner; Kelly Hu; Matthias Hues; Martin Kove; Lorenzo Lamas; Jason Scott Lee; Bai Ling; Tommy ‘Tiny’ Lister; Kristanna Loken; Michael Madsen; Costas Mandylor; Eric Roberts; Cynthia Rothrock; Dan Severn; Kevin Sorbo; Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa; Oleg Taktarov; Brian Thompson; Tony Todd; Danny Trejo; Casper Van Dien; Michael Jai White; Don ‘The Dragon’ Wilson; and Billy Zane. What a list! The trailer is available online and is every bit as amazing as you’d expect, but let’s say you’re a movie reviewer wanting to help promote it?


The company’s website is defunct, their Facebook page hasn’t been used in 3 years, they’ve got almost the same name as a Canadian documentary group, which is confusing, and none of the people involved in the movie appear to use social media. It’s the same company that made “Blizhniy Boy” in 2008, which is as yet unreleased in English (I think there’s a Russian version somewhere, even though it’s got an English-speaking cast), and has the weird feeling of being a money-laundering operation or other complicated scam. Why make 3 movies, promote them and never release them?

The Circuit 3: Street Monk (2006)

240full-circuit-iii -street-monk-poster

If you’re going to make a low-budget action film, you need to make sure you do as well as possible with the things you have control over. That’s pretty much script and editing – you can’t get the best directors, actors or special effects when you’re in the bargain basement, but you can at least make sure your script makes sense and the editing assembles the film in a logical order.


Of course, if you’re Jalal Merhi, then these guidelines don’t apply to you. Producer, director and co-star of his own movies, Merhi is entertaining in a sea of trash because his films sort of look okay – actors look like actors, scenes are well-lit, fight scenes are usually decent; but they make absolutely no sense whatsoever. Most of the discussion about this movie will be about its plot and editing, because everything else is blandly competent.


OIivier Gruner, solidly dependable star of the first two movies and stuff like “Nemesis” (so he’s worked for both Albert Pyun and Jalal Merhi, poor fella) returns as Dirk Longstreet. Now, it’s been a while since I saw part 2, but I’m pretty sure he was exonerated at the end of that movie, so it’s a little weird to see him living the life of a fugitive, in a van by the beach, spending his days either surfing or taking part in a weird sort of fighting league where everything takes place on rocky outcrops with a helicopter watching. Not sure of the economics of this, but…eh, if I dwell too much on how this is bonkers, by the end I’ll be tearing my hair out.


For some reason, he thinks his fiancé, left in a coma at the end of part 2, is dead, and because he’s dropped off the grid (apart from getting in touch with the people who organise the canyon-fighting) no-one can tell him his wife’s actually alive, and awake from her coma. This is, of course, entirely irrelevant to the plot.


Before we’ve had too much time to dwell on this, we’re transported to a strip club, which is also the home to another underground fight league, although the way they tell us is really confusing, with a fight breaking out in the middle of a normal evening of stripping, and suddenly everyone being super into the bloodshed. King of this league is “Spider” Webb (how many characters surnamed Webb in the movies have had the nickname Spider? I feel like it must be hundreds), played by badass actor James Lew, who’s been in a million things. Lew is awesome, but he’s fairly small and not in ripped shape, and would’ve been around 50 when this movie was filmed. Not the guy I’d have picked for my ultimate fighter, but whatever.


Turns out that club owner Octavio Ventura (Jason Carter, “Babylon 5”), is also into human trafficking, including buying a teenage girl, Sherri, from her own stepfather for $15,000. Thanks to the dumbest kidnappers in the history of the movies – well, maybe running those from “Lauderdale” a close second – she’s able to escape, although where they’re going from and to is never mentioned, and luckily runs into Gruner on the beach, who after a little reluctance, helps her out, beating the crap out of the kidnappers with his surfboard. So they team up, and what follows is genuinely one of the more baffling sequences in movie history.


Apologies for going a bit in depth on this one. So, the kidnappers are told not to return unless they’ve got the girl with them, so one of the guys goes up to a group of surfers and pays them to find Dirk and “bring him in”. The scene with the surfers appears to be improvised, and I wouldn’t put it past Merhi to have gone to the beach and hired the first five guys he saw – so anyway, after this weird little scene, they find Dirk, exactly where he was the last time, and beat the crap out of him, all the while with the kidnappers watching from a distance. Then…they just leave him and go surfing again! After a few minutes, Dirk wakes up, goes into the water and kills all five surfers via taking them underwater and drowning them, then escapes the scene, while the people who wanted him beating up and bringing to them observe and do absolutely nothing. He’s not actually kidnapped and taken to the Strip Club Fight League for another half an hour or so, leaving act 2 exceptionally dull.


The rest of the film is almost standard stuff, almost. We get one scene where Octavio is watching the fighters train, but he’s actually watching a CCTV feed of someone else watching the fighters train. Never change, Mr Merhi! Then, all his fighters, backstage, start beating up Dirk, which seems a foolish thing to do for such a big investment. After his first fight, the dreadful MC of the club says “World champion Dirk Longstreet does it again!” Er, what’s he world champion of? He was a teacher who used to be the top dog of an illegal fight circuit at the beginning of movie 1, and he’s done nothing since then to win any championship. During his apparent one-night domination of the Strip Club, he faces one bloke whose sole move is to get knocked down, then do a kip-up: seriously, he does like five of them in a row and it looks bonkers.


Right at the beginning of the movie, Octavio wants Sherri back partly because she can finger his entire organisation. At the end, he’s so upset with his dreadlocked assistant that he shoots her, non-lethally, gives her some severance money and tells her to get the hell out of his sight. Er, couldn’t she just go to the cops and get your operation shut down immediately? Have some consistency, man!


Sorry for having to spoil the ending, dear reader, but it’s so odd that I just had to. Dirk wins all his fights, then right at the end takes on “Spider” Webb, the undefeated champion of the league, and kicks his ass in ten seconds. After, bear in mind, at least four other fights that same night, which must have tired him out a bit. So he and Sherri escape, then for absolutely no reason whatsoever he climbs onto the roof of the club for another, hopefully climactic, fight with Webb…then kicks his ass in ten seconds again, sending him off the roof to his death. Wait, what? That’s it? Well, there’s a coda where Dirk takes to the road, escaping what he thinks is an impending arrest (giving us a mumbled monologue about honour or something), and a meeting with Jalal Merhi (who was a newspaper editor in part 1 and just a buddy of Dirk’s in part 2), Sherri and Dirk’s fiancé, who decides on the spur of the moment to become Sherri’s new legal guardian / boss. I have no idea either.


You may notice that Loren Avedon, ISCFC favourite, is seventh billed in the credits. How hard did he have to work for that seventh billing? Well, his entire screen time is approximately ten seconds, so “not very” is the answer. But look at those credits, where his name is misspelled, as is that of the woman playing Sherri (Cristina Rosas), with the name of the woman above him in capitals for no reason. You might also notice that Gruner is never on screen with Merhi, Avedon, his wife or any of those people, which indicates to me there were some fairly serious post-production problems (I’d lay good money on this sitting on a shelf for several years, for one).


I’d dismiss it as a shambles but this is Merhi we’re talking about, a man for whom the criticism “paid for movies just so he could be in them” is being too kind. But saying that, if you’re going to drop a million dollars on a movie, wouldn’t you at least try to make it make sense? How could he have possibly watched the finished version and thought it was in any way releasable? But his lack of anything approaching care is your gain, pop this on and provided you’re in the right mood, there’s a ton of unintentional laughs to be had.


Rating: thumbs down

The Circuit 2: The Final Punch (2002)


I feel confident that not a single person reading this review will be doing so to judge whether or not to see the movie. It’s almost impossible to get hold of – not available on DVD in the UK, quite expensive on DVD in the US, and not available to stream online (as far as I can tell). I had to resort to a torrent, which froze at 75% complete; this will lead to some oddities in the review, as several scenes were viewed in oddly glitching sections – something would start, then the screen would go all weird colours for a second, then it would jump ahead a random amount (usually a few seconds, but often 30 or more). Combined with the less-than-stellar editing of ISCFC non-favourite Jalal Merhi, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for a confusing movie.


Luckily, the plot is so simple that I could have watched this entire mess on fast-forward and still got the everything. The first “Circuit” movie was a ton of fun, with action B-movie superstars kicking ass in a story of an underground fight league, avenging a brother, all that good stuff. The sequel is, to be polite, more of the same! The fight league this time is inside a prison, and this fact, along with the initial fight we see, poses a heck of a lot of questions. The only audience is other inmates, so no-one’s making money out of it, and fights are often fatal, meaning there’s a lot of “people getting killed trying to escape” stories in the press. This seems like a poor business model! It turns out there’s inter-prison tournaments at night on deserted beaches, with wealthy invited guests, but there really doesn’t seem like enough of them to make it worth anyone’s while. But, picking logic holes in a Jalal Merhi film I’ve only seen 75% of is a fool’s errand, so let’s continue.


Star of the first movie Olivier Gruner is back as Dirk Longstreet, undefeated Circuit champion turned college athletics tutor; he’s joined by his English reporter girlfriend Nicole, and she’s the person who reveals the details of the prison fight league. Ol’ Dirk saves one of his students from committing suicide – not sure why, glitch; then, attempting suicide is apparently enough to get you sent to prison, so the poor kid gets locked up. During a visit, Dirk finds out about the league, and Nicole gets kidnapped, so…you know what’s going to happen…he gets himself inside the prison! It’s basically done by inventing a transfer from another nearby jail and sneaking him onto a bus, with the only problem being he’s sort of famous in underground fighting circles. When the Governor phones the other Governor and says “why did you transfer such a badass fighter?”, the gig is up immediately.


This perhaps shouldn’t be a surprise when you know Jalal Merhi dreamed up the plan, via his screenwriter Glen Doyle (whose 4 writing credits are all Merhi movies) – he’s also back to act as the editor of the newspaper, and they’re accompanied by pony-tailed legend Lorenzo Lamas as…not sure? A friend of the gang, I guess. I’ve just read a few other reviews and it seems no-one has any idea why he’s involved in this movie, so I’m happy to relay that information to you. What is important is the lovely little pug puppy that Longstreet and Nicole have does not die. Okay, both its owners are away for a very long time, but a friendly neighbour hopefully took it in.


There’s just lots and lots of fighting. I know, not much of a surprise, but even in the “lots of fighting” genre, this one has more than average. Aside from Dirk and his MMA  style, everyone else sort of blends into a mass of samey punch-kickery. If you were expecting a bit of exploitation movie prison plotting, you’d be shit out of luck, it’s just the most convenient way to get all the people needed together with no way out.


I don’t like saying this about people, but I’m confident I’m a great deal smarter than Jalal Merhi. He’s in the business he’s in because he has money, pure and simple, and watching this is proof of that. There’s no tension built about Dirk fitting in, in prison – he’s just there and immediately fighting. The Governor finds out he’s not on the level but seemingly does nothing. We never find out if Nicole is okay or not, or why on earth the Governor let her go without killing her. The plans invented by the cast feel like the result of some kids inventing a game on their own. I know I’ve pointed out holes bigger than this in other movies, but the sense I got here is that Merhi genuinely thought he was being clever with all the plotting.


Still, it’s entertaining, after a fashion. Gruner is an intense leading man, and a really good fighter; Lamas seems aware of how silly all this; I liked the beach location at the end; and, that’s about it. Perhaps of interest if you’re a Jalal Merhi completist, or just really like underground fight league movies (of which there are a surprisingly large amount), but otherwise avoid.


Rating: thumbs down

The Circuit (2002)


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:

Directed by:

Jalal Merhi (“Tiger Claws”, plus he has a cameo and is as terrible as ever)


Olivier Gruner (“Nemesis”)

Bryan Genesse (“Screwballs 2: Loose Screws”, “Project Shadowchaser 2”, “Live Wire: Human Timebomb”)

Loren Avedon (“No Retreat: No Surrender 2”, many others)

Billy Drago (“Cyborg 2”, “Karate Cop”)

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

Youtube Film Club: Tiger Claws 3 (2000)


I’d call the end of this film an insult, but that would imply that the filmmakers understood human emotion well enough to insult people. With the honourable exception of a fine OTT turn from Loren Avedon, everything in this film is stupid or confusing –  although even his use is weird because he’s a top-level martial artist and doesn’t fight at all. It’s like having Fred Astaire in your movie and not bothering to have him dance.

Jalal Merhi and Cynthia Rothrock are back in New York, and it seems at some point in the last decade Jalal had an acting lesson because he has several emotions in this movie. Well done, sir! Anyway, they nearly arrest a guy dressed like a ninja, and thanks to this save the contents of a warehouse, which leads to them getting invited to a charity event, for some reason held in the same place that most of part 1 was set – the gym with the huge tiger painted on the wall. If only New York had any other nice places!

Anyway, like 20 people are at this fundraiser, so it’s obviously a huge failure. They still have the big event of the evening, though, which is Avedon (the amazingly named “Stryker Goodenough”), who looks strangely familiar to our two cops, unveiling three old martial arts outfits which belonged to some masters from 500 years ago (or 2000, depending on which bit of dialogue you listen to). A few chants and some lightning later, and we’ve got three ancient and evil martial arts masters running around! I’m really not sure why this was the centrepiece of the evening, in case you were wondering.

Everyone who was there dies, with the exception of Jalal. Yes, sorry Cynthia – since you and Jalal never really shared any screen time in the previous two, and had negative chemistry, perhaps it was for the best. Anyway, the Three Furies (I don’t know what they’re really called, but that’ll do; it’s either that or “imagine the three baddies from Superman 2 were Chinese”) go on a bit of a tear through New York – when Stryker finds them to control them, he uses them to take over the Chinese mafia territory. The main mafia boss has an English accent, which I found a bit weird, but “a bit weird” is a low level for this movie so I let it slide.


Jalal needs to train in the even ancienter and secreter art of the Black Tiger to defeat the Furies, so luckily there’s Master Jin (Carter Wong, “Big Trouble In Little China”), the same guy who trained Stryker, knocking about to help. Problem is, the Black Tiger style looks absolutely ridiculous, lots of “jazz hands”, but…ah, who cares. As Jalal and Jin are driving to the training venue, he asks where it is and Jin says “I don’t know where it is, but I know how to get there”. Now, when they arrive it’s a large house with a training barn off to the side, and Jin clearly owns it. Why not just tell him where it is? YOU SUCK, MOVIE

So Jalal trains, in a series of montages that martial arts movie fans will have seen a hundred times before, and despite Jin not knowing where it is, Stryker does and sends some goons out to kill them all. When he dispatches the killers, he’s wearing a towel and the Furies are eating fried chicken. At some unspecified point in the future, one of the killers comes back to say they failed; Stryker still wearing a towel, Furies still eating fried chicken, same room. How fast were they?

There are a very few fun things in this movie, though. One is Russell Peters, the standup and occasional actor, as a cop. Aside from a tiny part in a Canadian indie movie 6 years before, this is his first role, and he’s great. Well, at least compared to everyone else – he and Avedon act rings round the rest of the cast. Then there’s a scene where Jalal goes to a bar to brood, but because he’s a Muslim and teetotal, he buys the old man sat across from him booze and watches him drink it. Quite clever, I thought.

Loren, you magnificent bastard

Loren, you magnificent bastard

As I only watched this series of movies to see Avedon in part 3, I now just wish he’d been the star of all of them. They’d have been lighter, funnier, the action would have been better and the rest of the cast might have felt like upping their game a little. But Merhi paid for them, and that means Merhi got to star in them.

Oh, and the ending is…it was all a dream. WHAT? He wakes up at the fundraiser, just in time to stop Avedon, who he remembers is the guy he was trying to arrest the other day, and that’s that. Cynthia is still alive, the crowd boos, and we can all go home. What a horrible mess.

Rating: thumbs down