Kickboxer: Retaliation (2018)

After a franchise resurrecting movie which didn’t have the action, the humour or the technical chops to be enjoyable enough, we have a sequel which, despite a lower budget, fewer stars and a writer/director I’d never heard of, manages to be vastly more entertaining. All those little things that fell flat in “Kickboxer: Vengeance” work exactly as they’re supposed to here.

The theme of this movie is, if you’re really good at martial arts, you can predict the future. Well, there’s other stuff to it, but you’ll definitely turn it off with that impression. Kurt Sloane (Alan Moussi) and his wife Liu (Sara Malakul Lane) are on a train going through the mountains, and their dance number is interrupted by a bunch of bad hombres who want to kidnap her and kill him. A few well-places kicks and a fight on top of a train later, and…it was all a dream! But, despite him never meeting these people before, a whole bunch of them turn up as the villain’s goons in the last third, and Kurt has that “where do I know you from?” face.

Kurt’s a UFC (or whatever off-brand cage-based fighting league they’re saying it is) fighter now, living his best life and making mincemeat out of his opponents. After getting kidnapped by a couple of fake cops one night, he finds himself in Thailand, in front of the fellow we presume is part 1’s unseen Mr Big, Thomas Moore (Christopher Lambert, who should have fired his agent around 1990, and now looks like the reanimated zombie version of himself). It’s a matter of honour that Kurt should give him a chance for a rematch, and is even prepared to pay him a million dollars for another fight to the death. If not, well, they’re fully prepared to throw him in a Thai jail for the murder of Tong Po in “Vengeance”…despite, one would imagine, that all having been cleaned up a while ago, what with his wife being a cop at the time and them not exactly leaving Thailand in a hurry.

But, you may not have seen “Vengeance”? So let’s not poke too many holes in the continuity, as continuity snobs are the worst – yes, I’m definitely one myself, but I’d go to Continuity Snobs Anonymous if I could.

Anyway, he gets thrown in jail, and the first thing he does is fight his way through the place in a brilliant fight scene which is all done in one continuous take. I mean, it’s not really, as you can see the cuts, and it’s a very long way from the frenetic pace of the modern classic of this mini-genre, Tony Jaa kicking an entire hotel’s ass in “The Protector”; but they’re trying! It’s easily better than any individual scene in “Vengeance”.

So, he hangs out in prison, not breaking as Mr Moore throws everything he can at Kurt to get him to submit, including regular whippings. Eventually, Kurt discovers a little gang of friends inside the jail, including his old trainer Master Durand – a welcome return for Jean-Claude Van Damme – who was blinded after the events of part 1 for his role in the murder of Tong Po; a footballer, played by real-life Brazilian footie legend and far-right lunatic Ronaldinho; and Briggs, a boxer, played by Mike Tyson. The scene where Kurt meets Briggs is hilarious, because you can imagine the negotiations that went on behind the scenes to get Tyson to appear – even though Kurt is supposedly one of the world’s best martial artists, the 51 year old Tyson has to win the fight and do cool stuff like punch straight through walls and so on. There are also a boatload of appearances from UFC guys like Wanderlei Silva and Shogun Rua playing pretty much themselves.

As well as learning to box, he gets some wisdom from Durand. Now he’s blind (sort of a reference to his other beloved 80s franchise “Bloodsport”), his other senses are heightened, which results in him being able to “see” where a blow will land before it’s even thrown (not sure what sense this is, but whatever, it’s not played seriously anyway). Both these new skills are shown to us in that favourite of all scenes, the training montage! I love a training montage! Oh, and he can even “see” fights he’s not involved in due to sensing the air, or something. I have no idea, but it’s wonderful.

The guy he’s got to fight is Mongkut, played by none other than Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson, former World’s Strongest Man contestant and currently The Mountain on “Game Of Thrones”. He’s genetically engineered like Dolph Lundgren in “Rocky 4”, for much the same purpose, even though you might wonder why a 6’8”, 400 lb beast of a man needs any more chemical help to beat up the 6’0”, 200 lb Kurt. The bit during the final fight, when Mongkut’s hipster trainer / technician just openly shoots him up with high-grade pharmaceuticals at ringside, is a hoot.

There are a few logic holes that, weirdly, just add to the camp charm of this gem of a movie. Even though Kurt is presumably a relatively famous martial artist back in the States, no-one seems to give a damn about getting him out of the jail where he was illegally kidnapped and taken to…apart from his wife, thank heavens. His American promoter doesn’t send over a group of tough dudes to bust him out, or anything! There’s also the way that in this almost entirely Thailand-set movie, none of the people we meet (apart from background extras and so on) is Thai. Hero and villain are both white Westerners, the villain’s boss is French, the main people in the jail are a black American, a Belgian and a Brazilian, the fight MC apparently has Asian, Hispanic, French and Native American ancestry….you’re about twenty people deep in the cast list before you get to anyone who’s actually from the country they’re traipsing through, and that person has the huge role of “Female Valet No.1”. One last bit of racial business – the chanting of “White Warrior” by the crowd during the final fight was problematic in “Vengeance” (although perhaps I’m missing something in translation) but its return here makes literally no sense as both competitors are white.

But please put any notion I didn’t enjoy this far from your mind. I loved it, and I think you will too. First up, the fights are very well shot, with the epic final confrontation even telling some of the story, and the action is fun and exciting. Kudos to director Dimitri Logothetis, who, if he’s known at all, is as a producer, not a writer / director (although he’s done all three). I imagine there’s an interesting story behind it all, or perhaps he just came into some money and bought into the relaunching franchise. Who knows? But he’s a great match for the material.

The script is over the top in all sorts of subtle ways, and it appears Moussi learned a lot about acting in the intervening years, as he’s able to deliver its ludicrous premise much better than he did before. I do like how some of the reviews of this complain about the silliness, as if a movie about an underground fight league where people are regularly murdered by a giant steroid freak should be serious business. Come on! What some people seem desperate to forget about the golden age of martial arts movies is that they were, by and large, silly as hell. That’s fine, of course, and you can still have tight action and good performances in a camp movie (which I believe “Retaliation” achieves).

Okay, before I leave you, I want to talk Bad Guy Economics, one of my favourite subjects. Moore puts his giant up against Kurt, and works hard to ensure Mongkut wins – including injecting him with steroids at ringside. Now, given Moore is in charge of the betting, who the hell is betting against the monster, especially after the first round when Kurt is virtually dead and Mongkut is entirely unharmed? No matter how short the odds, everyone would have been betting one way, so he’s definitely going to lose money, right? He really ought to be either telling Mongkut to go easy on him for a while, or to finish things off quickly, because the longer it goes on the worse his payday gets. Or, he should want Kurt to pull off the upset!

Rating: thumbs up

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Kickboxer: Vengeance (2016)

It was with great excitement I greeted the news of a new entry into the Kickboxer franchise. The series, which started off with Jean-Claude Van Damme before handing the reins over to the excellent Sasha Mitchell (and then, briefly, Mark Dacascos), was a lot of fun – even though some of the series was directed by ISCFC Hall of Shamer Albert Pyun – with colourful locations, and lots and lots of fights. They also established / popularised the Typical Martial Arts Movie Plot, which goes as follows:

  1. Two brothers / best friends, one of whom is a champion fighter

  2. Champion fighter is killed by a master of a slightly different martial art

  3. Brother / best friend tries to get revenge and fails

  4. He (it’s always a he) goes to exotic locale, learns new martial art

  5. He falls in love with a local who really doesn’t want him to die against villain X

  6. Revenge is had

Although there are some minor differences, “Kickboxer: Vengeance” follows this plot almost to a T. But it’s got the extra fun of starring some fairly big name UFC fighters, martial arts / acting crossover star Gina Carano, and JCVD in a supporting role, showing that he’s kinda sorta learned how to act in the intervening years.

I’ve long disliked the trope of show a clip, then go “6 months earlier”, because it’s often done by people who don’t really understand it, because they’ve seen it done in other better movies and want a bit of that class. Much is the same here, as we start with Kurt Sloane (Alan Moussi, better known as a stunt performer) goes to the compound of Tong Po in order to train – only, he’s not there to train, he wants revenge for the death of his brother Eric (Darren Shahlavi, who we’ve covered before and is sadly missed, having died in 2015). He gets his ass kicked, of course, but Tong Po lets him go rather than killing him. Insult!

Tong Po’s gatekeeper is played by UFC champ Georges St Pierre, who, what he lacks in acting ability, makes up for in lack of acting ability; one of the other goons is UFC guy Cain Velasquez; and Tong Po himself is former WWE guy, surprisingly good actor and current star Dave Bautista. Judging by Shahlavi’s involvement (he died early in 2015) this was probably made in 2014, before “Guardians of the Galaxy” pushed him out of the price range of productions like this, one would have thought.

I was also about to make a slight comment about how sad it is Tong Po, judging by his name, has never once been played by an actual Asian actor (the guy who played him in parts 1-3, Michel Qissi, is Moroccan/Belgian, and his replacement for part 4 is Kamel Krifa, a Tunisian). But, Mr Bautista has a Filipino father, which makes him closest, geographically speaking. Sort of well done, movie! My wife also didn’t believe Liu, the cop / love interest was a local either, but she’s Sara Malakul Lane, ISCFC regular (“Sharktopus”, “100 Degrees Below Zero”), and half-Thai, which means they can have scenes where she’s talking to locals and other cops and it can be in actual Thai, not just heavily accented English.

Anyway, back to the movie! If you don’t love training montages, I don’t think we would ever be friends. This movie features a couple of beauties, where Kurt is taken by Liu to hide out at Master Durand’s place and Durand takes him from zero to hero. JCVD plays him in a half-homage to Xian from the original, half as a weird hipster gone to seed sort of guy, and it works. There’s a recreation of the famous scene from the original where the trainer takes Kurt to a bar and gets him involved in a brawl to test his mettle, too.

Gina Carano, who I think deserves better roles than the sort of middling straight-to-VOD stuff she’s gotten recently, has a very curious role in “Kickboxer”. She’s the fight promoter for Tong Po, responsible for getting Eric to go to Thailand to fight him, and seems genuinely upset that he died (perhaps they had a relationship). And given that Eric was also trained by Durand, her remorse appears genuine…until she reveals her true colours later. Also, she never so much as throws a punch in this movie, a curious choice at best (it’s like having Fred Astaire and not having him dance). Best guess is they hired her for a day or two and having her fight was too expensive. But it’s a shame, and her weird motivation doesn’t help. Also, they pay Eric $200,000 to fight, and when you see the contest, it’s in what looks like the back room of a bar with maybe 200 people in attendance, none of whom look that rich. No signs of broadcast, no betting going on. How’s she making her money in all this?

I want to talk two scenes now, which I think reveal the rather shoddy finished product that we get. One is a fight on top of two elephants. Now this sounds exciting, and in different hands it would be! But what director John Stockwell gives us is perhaps the least convincing fake elephants of all time, with occasional cuts to real elephants that definitely don’t have anyone on top of them. Now, I don’t want animals to be abused for the sake of my entertainment, but if you’re going to use fakes, either use better ones or cut around them more. Come on!

And the second scene is when Carano sends her goons to kill Liu…and tells them to “make it messy”. Again, could be a great scene! But what we get is one guy. They send one guy! And he, despite having all the time in the world to hide and aim his rifle, misses them all and then dies fairly quickly. Could they not have just filled a car up with bad guys?

Alan Moussi is a gifted screen fighter, for sure, but he needs better direction than he was given. A huge majority of his fights are just repeated attempts to go for some wildly OTT manoeuvre like a double-back-flip kick or a Superman punch, and he gets blocked and thrown to the ground every time. Learn to stop doing that! After a while, it just becomes monotonous, and I don’t think it’s being played for laughs either.

It appears there was some rather substantial reshooting of the final fight scene, as there are quite a lot of cuts where you don’t see Van Damme’s face, indicating he wasn’t there, and his voice is dubbed by a very different sounding actor. Plus, they show the same scene of him looking slightly pensive maybe five times.

I wonder what Bautista thinks of his role in this. While he’s a bad guy – watching his trainees beat the crap out of each other, he just gets bored and wanders back into his room, where two women immediately stop what they’re doing, disrobe and join him – he’s not really bad enough. He treats Kurt, at least in the beginning, with a modicum of honour, and is seen meditating in front of a statue of the Buddha. He doesn’t strike me as a man villainous enough to kill the multiple in-ring competitors the MC tells us he’s killed, and he’s a little too low-key.

One last point – the presence of UFC fighters hints at this, but the last 20 years have proved to us that Eastern martial arts, Muay Thai among them (the exotic skill Kurt has to learn) is no better than any system designed anywhere else. UFC fighters have to be able to box and wrestle as well, and a fighter who only specialises in one style is going to get their ass kicked, quickly. So it’s weird to see the fetishisation of the mystic East here, which you can forgive in the pre-UFC days the original movie existed in but not so much now.

Ultimately, I’m not sure Stockwell is that good a director, or has any particular flair for martial arts movies. The original was made by a couple of journeymen too, but its definite B-movie aesthetic made it more willing to be slightly camp, plus the fights were very well staged. While “Kickboxer: Vengeance” has some humour in it, it takes itself a little too seriously, I think – as an example of what could have been, Alan Moussi recreates JCVD’s famous dancing scene…over the end credits. Too little, too late! And even though having your stars able to fight means there’s little having to edit round them, I feel Stockwell never takes advantage of this.

I was really pleased to hear about this, and thought up to the point I pressed play that I would have a good time with it. But, while it has its moments, it’s just not quite up to the standard of the original.

Rating: thumbs in the middle

Karate Warrior 2 (1988)

That’s a fine pout

Making its third appearance in an ISCFC review is a new favourite low-budget Italian movie trick, the “boat in New York harbour”. Want to look like you filmed there, despite you not having the money to do so? Well, sail a boat with one or two actors in it to Manhattan, get a nice shot of them against the skyline, then go back to whichever cheap location you had – in this case, Miami – and make the rest of your movie. If you’re anything like director Fabrizio De Angelis, you’ll film palm trees and stuff that says “Miami” on it in big letters and not even worry one bit!

Or, you know, he could have been going from New York to Miami at the beginning of the movie, and the terrible dubbing might have tricked me. I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed. But we’re back with part 2! Of a series that I only checked out because Ted Prior has a tiny role in this one! Fun fact – he must have realised he wasn’t going to get much screen time, as there’s a scene in a dojo where he’s wearing a gi with “Ted Pryor” (his screen name at the time) written on the back. Good work Ted!

But as he’s barely in it, so we’re not going to talk about him too much. Kim Rossi Stuart returns as Anthony, who’s gone back to the USA to visit his grandparents then go to college – his parents, who were also USA-bound, are never mentioned again, and he (I think) breaks up with his Filipino girlfriend in a phone call right at the beginning. If you were wondering if he’s as big a dick to everyone around him as he was in part 1, then the answer is “yes, only more so”. He knocks over a couple carrying their shopping and causes the arrest of a few guys by kicking their car as he bikes past, which makes them chase him – he ducks out of the way while they get stopped by cops, then bikes past them with a cheeky “have a nice day”.

Then…gets a new car from his grandparents, and while he’s taking it for a drive (in the middle of the party, which is never referred to again) he annoys a group of local thugs and they run him off the road into a pond. Car destroyed! He hitches a ride with someone who insists, before he gets in, that they become friends – he goes to the same college, although as they’re on a random stretch of highway nowhere near anywhere, I’m not sure why either of them assumed that about the other. Anyway, new best friend Luke (Winston Haynes) also puts him up in his huge mansion and serves him food – the only thing he has in the entire mansion is champagne and caviar. Perhaps this is how the director thinks all Americans live? Luke also tells Anthony that the group he messed with are “The Tigers”, college bullies – not sure they’re a thing that exists, but whatever – and are all karate experts too.

If you thought the plot of part 1 was thin, then part 2’s is positively transparent. He goes up to the gang of toughs (who, remember, were minding their own business until he pissed them off) and challenges their leader to a real in the ring style fight – their leader being the charmingly named Dick (Christopher Alan). And Anthony hits on Dick’s girlfriend too, to the point he dumps her and allows his friends to physically threaten her – just stopping short of rape, so, thanks movie!

So anyway, he wins the fight despite the Tigers cheating, and gets the girl despite her not particularly wanting him at any point, so the Tigers hire the founder of their evil organisation, who I think is called Tommy Bull, to come back to town and kick his ass. To get him to fight again, they threaten to break Luke’s neck – Tommy holds said neck while talking about defending the honour of the Tigers, which is a curious juxtaposition of image and dialogue. But whatever.

Master Kimura comes to town to spout more of his rotten philosophy, we get another fight, etc. And that’s that for another in this series of “Karate Kid” / “No Retreat No Surrender” (but only the first one) ripoffs! Anthony remains among the least likeable of all movie heroes, but in this, unlike the first, there’s no-one to cheer on as the bad guys are also super-evil.

Everything’s ugly and sort of poorly filmed and dubbed, and the budget is probably even lower than the last one as Anthony does his special punch…but the rubbish blue light effect doesn’t show up. I mean, how can you tell he’s performing what is essentially magic? And how does the blow that can knock a tree over not instantly kill the person he’s doing it to?

Annoying git wins and wins and wins, is the lesson of the first two parts of this franchise. Parts 3-6 were so unwanted by the American viewing audience that they’ve never been translated into English – the only way you can watch them is on an Italian DVD, which only comes with Spanish subtitles. So that’s the end of all that nonsense, and we can move on to “Deadly Prey”. *

Rating: thumbs down

  • I just discovered that part 6 is available in English but life’s too short.

Karate Warrior (1987)

Our stroll through the career of the Prior brothers continues, sort of. In 1988 Ted would appear, extremely briefly, in “Karate Warrior 2”, so for fun I decided to watch the first two “Karate Warrior” movies – there are, apparently, six of them and given parts 3-6 only appear to be available in Italian-language DVDs, I’m probably going to pass. Coming up next in the official Prior canon is “Deadly Prey”, aka “the one every bad movie enthusiast has already seen” so I’m putting that off for a few days.

Manila looks legitimately filthy and miserable, and poor Anthony Scott (Italian actor Kim Rossi Stuart) is having a rough time of it, getting beaten up and having all his stuff stolen after he’s only been out of the airport for a few minutes. He’s off from the USA to visit his Dad, a campaigning journalist who can’t possibly get on a plane himself and visit his own damn family. That Dad is Paul, played by Jared Martin (“Rome 2072: The New Gladiators”, lots of American TV) and their dialogue when they meet is the sort of stilted you can only get when an American and an Italian who can’t act are both dubbed by people who can’t act either. But still, it’s a nice reunion I guess?

The plot, such as it is, revolves around Anthony meeting a nice girl, Maria (Janelle Baretto, one and only credit), and then having a run-in with local gangster Quino (Enrico Toralba) – oh, and Quino is also the national karate champion, having learned from Master Kimura (Ken Watanabe) before he disappeared some years before. Anthony decides to antagonise the man who could 100% have him killed with no problem, and luckily for him Quino just decides to kick his ass and leave him in the woods.

This has really taken an unacceptable amount of screen time – something like 38 minutes of an 80 minute movie. Reading the VHS cover will reveal to you that Anthony learns karate from that same Master Kimura, so you either need more of a plot in your act 1 (like, a reason the Dad can’t leave the country, or why Quino is so evil), or you need less of an act 1. Then, act 2 where Anthony learns from Kimura, including some of the most poorly scripted philosophical musings of all time; and an act 3 which is revenge!

Only it’s all messed up. The training doesn’t start til 54 minutes, and act 3 really involves…nothing? I guess? Maria’s little brother is trapped in a burning building, which is apparently Quino’s work, and then Anthony rescues him and goes off to compete in the national karate championships. Well, he just turns up at the and challenges the actual champion, Quino, who’s just fought four other guys on his own so must be feeling a bit tired. Also, if you’re feeling picky, the title it’s known by in the USA, “The Boy In The Golden Kimono”, is super-irrelevant until the last five minutes when he puts it on, and then plays zero role in the rest of the action. It’s like calling “Grease” “The Girl In The Leather Jacket”.

It’s not so much awful as it is really, really boring. Director Fabrizio De Angelis, a minor figure in the Italian exploitation cinema story, seemed like he could barely be bothered here, and certainly couldn’t be bothered to make the hero remotely likeable. You’ll be cheering for Quino from the first time he appears on screen, and although we all know how it’s going to end, we’re all still a little sad when he gets his. Plus, Anthony uses the magic punch he gets taught to knock out a cow, which is a crappy thing to do so screw him.

I would like to talk about the training segment, though, a segment we bad movie fans have seen a million times. Kimura tries to sort Anthony’s twisted neck by shouting “Don’t worry, just relax!” at him multiple times, to the point where he’s screaming it in his face – if it’s a joke, it predates Seifeld’s “serenity now!” by almost a decade. Oh, and Anthony does the whole “can I ask you a question?” to which Kimura replies “no”, which I rather liked too.

The fighting, what little there is of it, is interesting, being properly stylised karate (I’ll leave it to the experts to talk about it in more detail – it has an interesting visual to it, anyway). But it’s badly edited and badly shot and terribly badly acted and has justifiably disappeared completely without trace since its release.

Part 2 is apparently set in the USA, so even though it’ll be mostly filmed somewhere in Italy and will suck out loud, we’ll watch it anyway. Then “Deadly Prey”! You’d have to go out of your way to find “Karate Warrior”, so my advice to you is don’t. Just leave it to sink ever further into obscurity and fill your mind with more joyful works.

Rating: thumbs down

Heatseeker (1995)

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This guy isn’t in the movie

Like any sensible B-movie enthusiast, I was drawn to “Heatseeker” by its amazing IMDB description.

“A kickboxing champion is forced to fight cyborgs in a tournament when the company kidnaps his fiancee.”

Given its free availability on Youtube, I hope there’s at least a few of you who’ve already stopped reading this review and have gone to watch it. But for those of a more cautious bent, read on!

Time to deflate that excitement bubble. Writing, producing and directing is one Albert Pyun, who we’ve encountered many times – from “The Sword And The Sorceror” to “Cyborg” to “Captain America” to “Dollman” to the “Nemesis” series, he’s genuinely one of the worst directors to have ever been employed for as long as he has (34 years and counting). His particular directorial fetish is to not show how one scene connects to the next scene, and that’s in full effect here. Joining him are some of his favourite actors – most notably for us, ISCFC Hall of Famer (if we had one) Tim Thomerson, as a futuristic corporate type who appears to have turned up in “Hunger Games” cosplay gear; but also, Norbert Weisser (too many Full Moon movies to bother counting) and Thom Matthews (“Return Of The Living Dead”), among many others.

“Heatseeker” (why is it called Heatseeker? No bloody idea) rests on a number of very shaky premises. But before I get to them, I’d best fill in the plot. Chance O’Brien (Keith Cooke, who was also in both “China O’Brien” movies, so I’m sure just a coincidence on the name) is the world full contact karate champion. In the far off future of 2019, all the other fighters are cybernetically enhanced (to a maximum of 10% of their body mass) but he’s pure human, and is still the best. At the beginning, we see him defeat the uber-powerful Xao (Gary Daniels, who can be great but really isn’t here), but we also see the Sianon Corporation build an entirely new cybernetic body for Xao, who I guess is just a brain and a nervous system at this point.

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Sianon has had the idea of putting their cybernetic enhancements to the test against those of the other cyber-corporations, and to that end puts on a tournament in international waters, so all the psychopathic fighters can kill their opponents with impunity. Each corp sends their best fighter, with their best enhancements (up to a limit of 50% of body mass this time), and the winner will dominate the tech market for the foreseeable future. But there’s a problem! Chance wants nothing to do with it, so…well, you know, having read the first line of the review. There is a cool scene where Xao invades Chance’s post-title defence press conference, a classic sports movie trick, so I guess we shouldn’t complain too much.

A solid hour of the movie is just this fight league, with one guy we’ve never seen before fighting another guy we’ve never seen before, along with a very upbeat commentary as this is obviously being shown on whatever TV channel was in “Videodrome”, as there are a ton of murders and mutilations in it.

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The idea of corporations and their different tech is sort of similar to the story of how the UFC started. The Gracie family from Brazil wanted to both make a lot of money, and to show how superior Gracie jiu-jitsu was, so put on a tournament where the masters of a bunch of styles got together and fought (this was before every fighter worth his salt cross-trained in every different style) – it’s possible that’s where Pyun got his inspiration from (UFC started in 1993, this is from 1995).

Let’s deal with the first baffling premise. Part of why corporate bad guy Tsui Tung (Weisser) kidnaps Jo (Tina Cote), Chance’s trainer / fiancée, is so she can help Xao. But not in terms of his fighting style, which is almost perfect, but in terms of his heart, by pretending to love him, which will apparently make him a better fighter. Jo, quite reasonably, tells him to go forth and multiply, but he shows her tape of Xao and says if she doesn’t play along, Xao will kill Chance. Okay, I guess, but wouldn’t it have been a ton easier to just lock her up and pay some prostitute to provide the “girlfriend experience” for a week or two? He is in charge of the world’s biggest cybernetics corporation, after all, so can’t be short of a few quid. They end up having sex at least once, and as she’s being coerced into it, it leaves a distinctly unpleasant taste in the mouth.

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There’s a very big and very odd elephant in the room, though. The whole point of this tournament is to decide which corporation is better, but Tung also wants Xao to get revenge on Chance. If you’re already stacking the deck in your favour by having 50% cybernetic enhancements (and not really checking when people cheat and use even more), and the pure human is able to hold his own in any way against your robot, that’s a terrible endorsement for your product! Although it’s never mentioned (Pyun not being a fan of explanations of stuff) Chance’s lack of enhancements seems to be a personal choice, so people who also don’t want cyber-enhancements are not part of your target audience. Why bother involving him at all and taking the risk? I’m pretty sure this question never occurred to anyone during the making of “Heatseeker”, because that question asker would also have asked about the title, and that would have set a house of cards crashing down, I’m sure.

I do need to mention the ending, so spoilers ahoy. Jo is being very visibly held at gunpoint by one of Tung’s goons, on camera, and then when Chance starts beating Xao, pretty easily, Tung grabs his gun and storms the stage. The commentator then continues to commentate on the murder and mayhem all around – hold on mate, aren’t you a corporate employee? Shouldn’t you cut to adverts or something when your CEO starts shooting people? Also, how does Xao get beat worse the second time around, when his opponent is fighting injured (broken wrist, acid-burned hands) and he’s got way more and better cybernetic implants? And why are there so many white Europeans with Asian names in this movie?

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Hopefully this has provided you with a flavour of how terrible this movie is. It’s almost literally impossible to care about most of the fight scenes, because they’re just random dudes; the acting is either way over the top (Weisser) or wooden as hell (everyone else); and Pyun is a crappy director, with his one redeeming quality (to his employers) being he delivers the right amount of footage, on time and on budget (this was apparently shot in 11 days, and it shows). Still, one more for you “fighting tournament movie” completists, and one more to add to your “never watch ever” list for the rest of you.

Rating: thumbs down

Youtube Film Club: Expect No Mercy (1995)

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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?

Youtube Film Club: American Samurai (1992)

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Why to-the-death underground fight leagues wouldn’t work in real life, in three simple bullet points:

 

  • How would you get fighters? If every guy has a 50% chance of death, then you’d exhaust the area’s supply of crazy people and over-confident martial arts guys in the first few weeks.
  • I just don’t believe you’d get enough people who’d cheer on mutilation and murder to make a financial go of it. Are there that many bloodthirsty sociopaths in the world? What about when fights end in one strike? How do you bet on a fight which lasts three seconds?
  • Most importantly – competition. Pro wrestling stopped being “real” and boxing introduced padded gloves in large part because if you want to create rivalries, which are hugely important for drawing money, you need your main guys to stay healthy enough to fight reasonably regularly. There are no best-of-three fights when it’s to the death (obviously).

 

That’s leaving aside that the police might eventually get interested in the dozens of disappearances / bodies being dumped just outside town, although the local cops are usually bought off in movies like this. But, as well as being an underground fight league movie, “American Samurai” is also an example of that surprising durable favourite plot of martial arts movies, the feuding brothers. Those “brothers”? David Bradley, star of the later “American Ninja” movies, and Mark Dacascos, of all sorts of things but most notably to us, “Double Dragon”, “Kickboxer 5”, “Drive” and “Sabotage”. This entire smorgasbord is thanks to Cannon Films, which decided that “American Ninja” was such a hit, they’d try and start another, effectively identical, franchise, with the same leading man.

A quick word about our leads – both actors improved after this. Dacascos was at the beginning of his career, and while Bradley had already starred in several “American Ninja” instalments when this was made, he got better too. Bradley is acting like he’s just taken strong painkillers and Dacascos like he’s just taken speed.

 

A plane carrying an American family crashes in Japan, with the only survivor being a tiny baby. Rather than reporting it to the authorities or allowing the remaining family the slight respite of knowing the baby made it, a local samurai master takes the baby and raises him as his own, alongside his own son. Luckily, they all speak perfect English, and the baby is raised without a hint of a Japanese accent, even. The two brothers feud, because Drew (Bradley) is hard-working and devoted – while not having the slightest interest in meeting any of his extended family, even into his 30s – and Kenjiro (Dacascos) is a bit of a scumbag, and indeed joins the Yakuza when it turns out that their father is going to give the Clan’s sword to Drew. Drew is now “keeper of the blade”, although this seems to be solely limited to just putting it in a nice case on his mantel.

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This bit is so standard as to be barely worth recapping. If you’re reading this, chances are you’ve seen four or five movies with a similar opening sequence; but what you won’t have seen is the next scene, where suddenly Drew is living in the USA as an investigative reporter. Did he go to college in Japan? He’s being sent to Turkey to check out some drug smuggling activity, and is assigned a photographer. Yes, of course the photographer is a hot woman, and of course their relationship is prickly at first, come on! I don’t need to tell you all this stuff!

 

That sword is really important to Kenjiro, for some reason, so he sends a bunch of goons to steal it, and they succeed, but not before Drew has beaten a bunch of them up and taken a bullet to the gut. After they leave, he hears his Dad’s voiceover (which ought to be third-billed in the movie, it’s in it so often) telling him to manage his own pain, or some such nonsense – this is just so he can pluck the bullet out himself and heal, with zero help, virtually instantly. Well, it’s more accurate to say “the movie just didn’t bother showing him get better, in about a day, from a gunshot wound”.

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He goes to Turkey, and we discover he’s just looking for his brother, who he knows is there. He helps out a big ol’ redneck in a bar fight – who’s definitely not supposed to be a cheap ripoff of Ogre from “Bloodsport” – then gets kidnapped, and forced to fight in the to-the-death underground fight league, or they’ll kill Pouty McLoveinterest, who was kidnapped at the same time. Guess who’s champion of this league? And guess which big redneck is also signed on as a competitor? This whole section (which takes up a good half the movie) is so weird and wonderful – rather than one martial art vs another, it’s just dudes in fancy dress with blades, killing. There’s a Conan-looking guy, a Viking, a not-racist-at-all African jungle guy, and…a plain boring old white guy!

 

There’s so much to talk about! Let’s discuss some of the more bizarre technical choices – and there’s a lot of them. The plane that crashes at the beginning is going so slowly it actually bounces off the tree it’s hitting, and is such an obvious model that they might as well have had a kid’s hand guiding it in. Conan is killed in one scene, but he keeps showing up in the background, training, for the rest of the movie. There’s a really bizarre editing choice which only happens in the first half, where the last line of dialogue of a scene is played over the beginning of the next scene, even when the two have nothing in common. Then there’s the sex scene. Oh, the sex scene! While their faces are entirely in shadow, and their bodies are suddenly, mysteriously, quite different, Drew and Pouty have sex. Did the actors hate each other to the extent they refused to film a sex scene? Or (and this is way more likely) Cannon ran out of money and inserted these scenes much later to get it to a release-able length?

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Talking of inserting scenes, the final fight between Bradley and Dacascos isn’t really much of a fight. At the beginning, there’s lots of talking and a few blindingly fast but brief movements…so seeing the fight really kick off is pretty exciting, until you realise they’re not fighting each other all the time, and footage from other fights is being spliced in. You cheeky devils!

 

It’s not like the director was a novice, either. Sam Firstenberg was one of Cannon’s go-to guys, directing instalments in the “American Ninja”, “Ninja” and “Cyborg Cop” series. He’s even responsible for the movie which spawned a thousand terrible “name a fake sequel” jokes, “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo”! So quite what went on here is a puzzler, dear reader. It’s the only credited script of actor John Corcoran, so maybe he’s to blame? He certainly didn’t spend too much time making this a particularly original script, but I doubt he wrote “now put in some really weird editing for no reason”.

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I really enjoyed it, and it being free on Youtube certainly didn’t hurt. The constant “you must defeat the demons inside yourself” crap from Dad was a bit boring after a while – and, according to dialogue, he’s still alive, so they probably ought to have brought him in for the final fight (again, probably budgetary). But, it’s hard to really hate a movie with this many odd choices, which is based around a fight league – even the worst one is at least a bit of fun. Also, Bradley does some of the funniest acting I’ve ever seen, in an extreme close up, trying to convince us he’s using his sixth sense, an eye in his mind. Boy, is he going all out pretending like the middle of his forehead is looking at stuff!

 

Rating: thumbs in the middle

The Circuit 3: Street Monk (2006)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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).

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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