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

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Youtube Film Club: The Silent Force (2001)

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I’m always happy to track down another Loren Avedon movie, because I know you, dear reader, are in a state of worry. “Which Loren Avedon movie from the VHS bargain bin should I buy?” you scream, and I hear you. Avedon was one of my favourite 90s martial arts / action movie guys, being able to kick ass and act, occasionally at the same time, and he’s been in at least one classic of the genre (“No Retreat, No Surrender 2”) and plenty of entertaining trash, like “King Of The Kickboxers”.

Around the millennium, looks like he sort of gave up on acting as a career, only appearing for his friends and doing the odd bit of “uncredited goon with no lines” work here and there. Avedon thinks this is due to an incident in 1991 with ISCFC favourite Sherrie Rose (“Summer Job”, “Lauderdale”) where he insulted her on set and she then badmouthed him to producers afterwards – but it’s not like her career was amazing either, so I just think he was a pretty tough guy to work with, if far too talented for the trashy roles he got.

 

The gist of “Silent Force” is there’s a group of Federal agents, working off-book, who are trying to take down some Chinese drug smugglers. Avedon is Frank Stevens, as nicely generic a name as you’ll ever find, and he’s got a sort of Lethal Weapon buddy-cop thing going on with Billy Lee (Clint Jung). They arrest Kim Pao, the son of the main guy Hue Gung Pao, and it’s on!

 

A brief aside at the casting of Pao, pere and fils: George Chung is the dad and Brian Tocchi is the son. These guys are both much better known as comedy actors – Chung from “Austin Powers” and “Rush Hour”, Tochi from the “Revenge Of The Nerds” series, so it’s a tough sell to see them as murderous villains. But anyway.

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The Pao family then wipe out Silent Force’s base, kidnapping Billy Lee and only leaving Frank because he was out buying groceries at the time of the attack. They have a mole inside Silent Force who they just straight-up murder as soon as the job’s done, which would not exactly inspire loyalty in any future moles; but there’s a mole inside Pao’s family as well, Natalie, the beautiful new girlfriend of one of his lieutenants (Karen Kim). The FBI list Frank as dead so he can go after Pao undetected, but then he tells the first group of baddies he meets what his name and plan is, so he’s perhaps not the smartest Federal agent of all time.

 

From the beginning, it will come as no surprise to the discerning B-movie fan that this is writer / director David May’s one and only credit. That first-timer’s incompetence is all over this movie, from the very beginning, with its self-consciously cool location (Silent Force is in what looks like a dojo in a disused factory), to the terrible sexist dialogue – “a woman on the rag can be a very dangerous opponent” to the meaningless cop jargon spewed all over the place. It’s a level 3 priority, you guys! Cos level 2 priorities aren’t worth a damn!

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There’s plenty of editing that makes potentially decent exciting scenes look terrible, like the shootout in the neon-drenched restaurant / bar. There’s a guy coming round the corner, but we’re not sure which corner, and the killing shot landed on him appears to just teleport into his chest, as there’s no gun pointed at him. Then there’s a few fights where obviously bad angles were used, so you can see punches miss their target or really awkward-looking swings – little stuff, admittedly, but when you’re operating at the lower end of the cinematic pool, you need to get all this stuff right to rise above the rest of the dreck.

 

There’s also the bizarre Matthias Hues cameo to talk about. When they capture Frank, they decide to make him fight to save the life of Natalie, who they’ve captured too, and for absolutely no reason whatsoever, they bring in Hues (uncredited, too) as a ringer. If you’re going to stack the deck against Frank, why not just shoot him? The Feds bust in and Hues shoots a few of them before going down himself – perhaps the director was a really big fan of the fight the same two actors had in “No Retreat, No Surrender 2” and wanted a rematch?

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This is a curious movie. Released in 2001, it was clearly destined to be straight-to-video shelf-filler, but those shelves were shrinking even as early as then, and one can’t help but think it must have sat unreleased for quite a while. Evidence – Avedon looks a decent amount younger than he does in “Manhattan Chase”, filmed the year before this was released; and if it had been released in the mid-90s, it could have done a lot more business probably. Kung fu movies and buddy-cop movies were both pretty old news by 2001, more evidence for it being a little out of time. Plus, the director does have one other credit, second-unit on 1994’s “A.P.E.X.”, so I can buy him working on that, rounding some money up to make a movie, failing miserably and then going back to his day job, but to wait 7 years? I don’t see this as anyone’s passion project.

 

Aside: take ISCFC legend Brion James, for example (who is credited as the singer and songwriter for this movie’s theme, amazingly) – despite dying in 1999, the last film he acted in wasn’t released til 2005. This is clearly more common than I thought.

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Sprinkle on an ending where the previously psychopathic villain turns into a camp bit of comic relief, as hero and heroine sail off into the sunset on the drug dealer’s yacht with all his money, and you’ve got yourself a movie. But should you watch it?

 

If you’re a real hardcore fan of Loren Avedon, then yes. But then if you’re one of those you wouldn’t need my review! It’s not quite terrible enough to be on the so-bad-it’s-good spectrum, and it’s certainly not good enough to just be a decent movie in its own right – but it’s just about okay enough that you won’t want to throttle me if you watch it based on this. Plus, it’s free, so put your feet up and enjoy.

 

Rating: thumbs in the middle

 

The Circuit (2002)

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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)

Starring:

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.

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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”.

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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).

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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

Preview: Risk Factor (2015)

MV5BMjM0NTAxNDY2NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwODM1NjM4MzE@._V1_SX214_AL_ Long-term ISCFC readers will know what a huge fan I am of Loren Avedon. He’s elevated many a martial arts movie with his top-level skills, although looking at his IMDB profile is sad because it revealed precious little since the mid-2000s. But he’s back! And even better, the movie he’s back in looks like a cracker. Here’s the trailer for “Risk Factor”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s0jDFsJ2Lq0 I do love a good “retired CIA agent being dragged back into the game by a mysterious woman” story, plus there’s Russian bad guys, other mean looking hombres and an underground fight league (!) too. Don’t be too confused by the lookalikes of both Richard Crenna and Billy Drago knocking about, though. Co-star Elise Muller was in “Hammerhead” (but we won’t hold that against her) and has worked with the Duplass brothers in “Baghead” (sadly her only two “-head” related credits); and Brett Halsey has been working since the 50s. There’s both acting and ass-kicking chops on display here, and I’m looking forward to it. 99idFZ3ZHgob2PQ15MqnjkitT3y Being British and having problems with some VOD services, I’m going to try and watch it this week, but if not be prepared to just fend for yourselves on this one. Dropping a few £££ on a new Loren Avedon movie can never be a bad idea! Check out the movie’s Facebook page for some behind-the-scenes photographs, and we’ve got a Q&A secured with director/producer Frank Caruso too. If you watch the trailer and have any questions you’d like to ask him, leave them in the comments or send us an email to the ISCFC mailbox.

Youtube Film Club: Manhattan Chase (2000)

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Genre mashups have been pretty big business for a while, but in all the zombie-comedies, scifi-westerns and war-werewolf movies, no-one apart from the makers of “Manhattan Chase” thought of creating the kung-fu / super-intense family drama combination, and now you can watch it too.

This represents the nexus of three of the ISCFC’s favourite review subjects – Loren Avedon, Cynthia Rothrock and Godfrey Ho. Yes, the king of splicing two mostly unrelated films together had a go at making a real movie, under the name Godfrey Hall, and this was amazingly his last movie before retiring to teach filmmaking (whether his course notes were just notes from two different courses, thrown together mostly at random, is sadly unknown). If you’ve never heard of this movie, don’t be surprised because it was barely released anywhere – Ho failed to sell it in either the US or Hong Kong, and now Youtube is basically the only place you can get hold of it.

Loren is Jason, a Mob hitman who is caught, just as he’s about to kill someone, by cop Cynthia Rothrock and locked up for 6 years. When he gets out, he just wants to re-establish his relationship with his son, so despite being asked to resume his old job, he says no. His old cellmate offers him a place to stay, and all seems well; unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Jenny, who steals some drugs from her stepfather in order to sell them and make a new life for herself, only to witness her stepfather beat her mother, before Jason’s old crew pop in and and start shooting, looking for the drugs (Jenny escapes, everyone else dies).

You’re then assaulted by the first of a hefty pair of coincidences that bring the characters into each others’ orbit. Jenny, as she’s running from the assassins, literally falls over Jason’s car as he’s just driving his son around. He offers to help her; at the same time Jason’s ex-wife comes into town, looking to see the son she abandoned just after he was born. The ex-wife’s sister? Cynthia Rothrock. If you can swallow those, then…nah, still not sure you’d stomach the reveal of just who the main villain is.

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If I had to guess, I’d say Godfrey Ho never bothered with any shooting permits, because there’s no way he could have afforded them for where he filmed. He’s definitely in New York, and films in real locations – Central Park, busy Manhattan streets, a public monument in Queens, and lots of filthy broken-down side streets with famous landmarks in the background. If you want to see what a city’s really like, look at its low-budget films, and “Manhattan Chase” will definitely show you that.

Despite Rothrock being top billed, she’s not really in it too much – Godfrey Ho took two scenes with Avedon and Rothrock sharing the screen, a few Rothrock-and-sister scenes and some of Rothrock chasing criminals, including one amazing scene where she kicks a bad guy through a table, which is just sat in the middle of a filthy alley; he sprinkles them throughout the main plot, Jason and Jenny vs. the Mafia, and hey presto! That Ho magic is in full effect.

Due to the use of natural light, and perhaps the cameras, everything feels cold and miserable in this movie. This isn’t helped by the tone of the conversations, which are about loss and family breakdown and honour and death – given its pedigree, I have to assume most of this tone is accidental, the result of a script by someone for whom English was not their first language (the credited writer, “Lisa Cory”, has this as her only credit, which leads me to believe it’s Ho under a pseudonym).

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Weirdly, Loren Avedon stands out like a sore thumb – not a wild overactor like the Mafia guys or a calm underactor like Rothrock and his former cellmate, he has the look in his eyes of a man who knows he’s on borrowed time, that his dreams of a happy family future are fading fast. Given that he’s previously excelled at fighting and light comedy, this is a pretty impressive turn from him, and is probably his best performance in anything we’ve seen of his so far.

As we take brief detours to see perhaps the fakest fake boobs of all time, a truly bizarre gunfight in Central Park, and a very fast-developing romance, we move towards an ending which is both very downbeat, followed immediately by the least likely coda I think I’ve ever seen. Good old Godfrey!

It’s absolutely worth watching, although not for many positive reasons. The fights are too few and far between, but it’s just so strange! Watch it and be sad that Avedon never got that bigger budget role he thoroughly deserved.

Rating: thumbs down

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Youtube Film Club: Tiger Claws 3 (2000)

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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.

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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

Fighting Spirit (aka King of the Kickboxers 2) (1992)

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Even in the world of low-budget movies, this has a rather confusing provenance. Loren Avedon was in “No Retreat, No Surrender” parts 2, 3 and 4, although part 4 is aka “King of the Kickboxers”. Part 5, Avedon-less, is better known as “American Shaolin” but was also released on VHS in the USA as “King of the Kickboxers 2”. Then, a year or so later, the rights owners to a very low-budget Avedon movie called “Fighting Spirit” decided to just call their movie “King of the Kickboxers 2” as well, making part 4 a rare example of a movie with two different sequels that aren’t related to it or each other.

But enough of my constant frustration with the vagaries of movie titling! We’ve got a properly bizarre experience to get through, available in its entirety on Youtube. And I’d definitely recommend popping it on before you read this, you won’t regret it. Well, you might. Okay, you’ll probably regret it. From the very off, this gives us one of my favourite low-budget tricks – the “terrible dubbing”. Even though the actors are speaking English, they’re dubbed with accents that sound nothing like their real ones. How do I know this? Because in about half the scenes, they’re not dubbed at all, so there’s genuine confusion in long shots about who’s saying what. Well done, movie, you wanted to make sure we knew how weird you were right from the off.

Avedon is David, the wealthy son of a big CEO, but he’s not bothered about money, preferring to hang around with his friend Billy, a pro kickboxer. We know this thanks to Billy’s trainer, who was dubbed by an angry shouting guy with a poor command of English. Anyway, a big point is made of David not being able to fight, as him getting his ass kicked causes Billy to be late meeting his sister, which causes her to walk home alone and get raped and beaten half to death by a gang of…arms dealers maybe? The gang is led by two brothers who look completely different and have wildly dissimilar accents, just in case you thought you were starting to understand things.

The sister is taken to hospital, and this is the first time you’ll really notice perhaps the weirdest thing about this movie – the soundtrack. Accompanying her unconscious body being wheeled through a hospital is jaunty disco music; throughout, there’s a sound which resembles a finger being quickly moved down a single guitar string, and is played approximately 9000 times, to introduce most scenes and entrances or just when there’s a few seconds which doesn’t have any sound in it. The rest of the music resembles offcuts from outsider musician genius Jandek; so, like normal music but out of tune and not in the right time and creepily discordant.

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Billy is given the money to pay for his sister’s operation by one of the brothers, and to pay him back has to compete for him in an underground fight league, at the same time as searching for the rapists with David. Oh, there’s a bar brawl where David is inexplicably brilliant at martial arts, way out of the timescale of the movie, but that’s not the weirdest thing that happens there – one of the bad guys is thrown through a window and lands in a hotel corridor. There’s zero attempt made to match the two sets, so I’ve got no idea at all what they were going for.

But we’re not even at the good bit of the movie yet! Billy twigs he’s working for the bad guys but they murder him, giving us this magnificent exchange:

BADDIE: “Any last words, Billy?”
BILLY: “Yeah, fuck you all!”

The Bard couldn’t have done better. Anyway, this movie’s real title comes into play now, as Billy’s ghost (!) tells David he needs to train to be an awesome fighter and take revenge on behalf of him; if you were expecting David to go undercover in the underground fighting league, just like the plot of about 20 movies we’ve reviewed recently, you’d be mistaken (as I was). He just trains with the guy who left the baddies in disgust, helps the sister around as she’s still got bandages over her eyes, and occasionally kicks a bit of ass.

If you’re even remotely trying to watch this like you would a normal film, then the sister is super-problematic. Her entire role in the film is to be either threatened with rape or raped, as she walks round, screaming for help with the gang cackling with evil glee at the things they’re going to do to her. She’s no-one’s love interest, she’s just a victim.

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If, on the other hand, you’ve read this review and think “holy crap, this sounds absolutely insane! Sign me up!” then you’re going to have a hell of a time. As David storms the bad-guy mansion at the end, having been told where it is by the ghost of Billy, he meets some of the most embarrassingly bad martial artists ever captured on camera; and when he finally gets his hands on one of the brothers, it takes a minute before you figure it out because he just runs into shot the same way the rest of the cannon fodder have done.

Everything about this movie is cheap. There’s no real lighting anywhere, the hospital looks like the foyer of a hotel, the actors are embarrassing, the action is embarrassing and the plotline, were it not for the same actors appearing all the way through, could have been cobbled together from the outtakes of a hundred rotten low-budget martial arts movies. The more I think about it, the more difficult it is to comprehend, and I think it’s got to be up there in the so-bad-it’s-good stakes. People probably aren’t looking at a nothing martial arts film called “Fighting Spirit” from 1992 for their kicks, but every now and again you’ll find a diamond in the rough. Okay, this diamond might feel like it was made in the 70s by a crazy person, but a diamond it is nonetheless.

I’ve not really mentioned Loren Avedon yet. I’ve really liked him elsewhere, even when the film surrounding him hasn’t been great – he’s a truly gifted on-screen fighter, plus has natural comic timing and decent acting ability. He’d have made a superb lead in a light cop drama, and the only reason I can think of why his star waned while that of a scumbag like JCVD shone so bright is that he was a fairly slim guy and didn’t look like a ripped steroid-monster. Or perhaps he wasn’t interested in acting any more – it sounds like a pretty thankless profession. Anyway, he just doesn’t get much of a chance in this, but when he does he’s great – the way he fights with a triangle from a pool table is the best moment in the movie by miles.

Make sure you’ve got a strong drink by your side and a group of friends, but if you have then you’ll probably enjoy this. One to put in your bad movie night regular rotation, I think.

Rating: thumbs up

No Retreat, No Surrender 4 (aka King Of The Kickboxers) (1991)

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Despite this having no retreating or surrendering in it, finally, it’s better known as “King of the Kickboxers”. As if the filmmakers wanted to ensure the title was still nice and misleading, there’s no tournament to crown anyone, and if we’re being brutally honest, not a lot of actual kickboxing.

This was the last of Loren Avedon’s three-movie deal with the Yuen brothers; despite headlining movies as late as 2003, this was about as bright as his star got. Keeping the series tradition, he plays yet another different character, either Jack or Jake depending on who’s talking, and in a scene we’ve seen a heck of a lot of times before, his older brother – a kickboxing champion – is killed on his way back from his championship-winning bout in Bangkok by the super-evil Khan (Billy Blanks), setting off a revenge plot of sorts.

Blanks and the big brother (Michael Depasquale Jr) are such spectacularly bad actors that I wondered if it was on purpose, but it would appear not, and we sadly don’t get much time with the brother. Blanks, though, treats us to his alien-reading-English-for-the-first-time line readings on a regular basis throughout and is truly one of a kind.

He just watched himself act

He just watched himself act

Fast forward a bunch of years, and Jake is back in the USA, an undercover cop who lives on the edge and just can’t play by your rules! Avedon is naturally charismatic and can crack a good joke, so I liked this bit; his amazing martial arts abilities make him a natural for an undercover mission to Thailand to infiltrate a ring making snuff martial arts movies. Jake’s not into it, until he watches one of the tapes (most of which is the opening scene from the last No Retreat, No Surrender movie, which AVEDON WAS IN) and notices the guy doing the killing is his old enemy Khan. This is merely the first of many huge coincidences in this movie.

Ignoring the fact that if the murderer’s face is on camera, and he’s a moderately famous former kickboxer, and he’s a massive black fella in Thailand, he’d be fairly easy to track down and arrest, Jake is on his undercover way. He decides to make waves in Bangkok to get himself noticed by the snuff-makers, doing stuff like walking into the middle of a Thai kickboxing academy and beating the crap out of all their fighters. Huge coincidence 2 is when he rescues a woman from a group of assailants, and it’s Molly (Sherrie Rose), a sort-of prostitute who ran away from the snuff guys after Billy wanted her for his very own. She has an amazingly luxurious apartment, too, enough that it was close to being a “hey, why not be a Thai hooker?” promotional video.

If the word “Kickboxer” in the title wasn’t enough, this is almost a straight ripoff of the JCVD masterpiece of a few years previously – Jake has to go to a mysterious super-powerful hermit who’s the only person to nearly beat Khan, because he realises his skills aren’t enough. He gets trained in real thai kickboxing until he finally gets hired by the film company to be Khan’s next victim – they pick him kind of by accident, really, which is coincidence no.3. Molly just drives round Bangkok a bit, which seems a risky move when a psychotic murderer and his enormous gang of thugs are after you, but whatever.

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There’s a lot to like about this movie, which is really quite surprising. The relationship between Jake and trainer Prang is more bickering brothers than master and student, which is a funny way to play things; there’s still lots of little montages showing him knuckling under and becoming even more badass than before, though. It’s one of those films where there’s enough weird stuff to push it over the edge into so-bad-its-good territory – Blanks first and foremost, a uniquely terrible actor in a field of terrible actors; the complete ripping off of a plot from a film from 2 years ago, including the “mystical” scenes filmed at what may be the same Buddhist temple; the series of coincidences that stands for a plot; and the idea that producing snuff films is a sustainable business model.

On the other hand, almost despite itself this movie has actually good bits in it. The final fight between Jake and Khan is a masterpiece of editing and choreography, performed at breakneck speed, and they built a hell of a set for it. There’s real humour, and very unusually for a martial arts movie of this sort, they reference other martial arts movies and stars a lot (including JCVD, whose big break was the first film in this franchise). Avedon knows when to take it seriously and when to relax, and it’s a shame he never really went on to too much (although judging by the “trivia” section of IMDB, he was a pretty tough guy to work with).

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This movie has a small but vocal fanbase who believe it’s up there with the classics of the genre. Not sure I’d go that far, but it’s super-entertaining and has a lot to like. Pop this on and have a good time.

Rating: thumbs up