Thursday, 17 December 2009

Shootfighter: Fight to the Death (1992)


Most kickboxing films in the late 80s/early 90s were named by combining two unrelated yet violent-sounding words (eg blood, death, kick, fist, fighter, sport), a principle similarly applied to the naming of Image superheroes. I figured that the term Shootfighter was another product of this creative technique, but it turns out that it's an actual thing, an MMA-style combat sport. I don't know anything about the rules, but apparently you're not allowed to tear out an opponent's throat with your bare hands because when Mr. Lee (Martin Kove) does that in the opening scene the shootfighting officials kick him out and ban him from the sport. Lee protests that "Only a battle to the death can determine a true champion" and they're like "Why don't you go and start your own shootfighting league then?" and he's like "Maybe I will." and they're like "So go do it then". So he does.

Years later we are introduced to Ruben (William Zabka), owner/chief instructor of a small, struggling karate school along with his wife Cheryl (Maryam D'Abo). So interestingly enough this film re-unites two The Karate Kid alumni, John Kreese, sensei of Cobra Kai (Martin Kove) and his top student Johnny (William Zabka). Although Lee never tells Ruben to "sweep the leg", I believe at one point a fighter tells Ruben "I hope you brought a body bag". Anyway, Ruben's brother-in-law Nick shows up after a long trip and straight away you know he's a badass because he has a ponytail and wears huge shades and a leather jacket, plus he rides a motorcycle. He's played by Michael Bernardo, a Karate champ, although if you prefer you can imagine he's played by Ralph Macchio, making this film a Karate Kid reunion special.

Actually the moment where these two guys meet is one of my favourite moments in the film; the two guys exchange tough-guy banter and show off by kicking cigarette packets off each others heads. Ruben also introduces Nick to his sensei Shingo, played by Bolo Yeung. It's nice to see Yeung playing a good guy, but unfortunately he doesn't get a lot to do here. Most of the time people just ask him a question and he stands there motionless for a while and then nods sagely, punctuated with a wind chime sound so you know that he's actually a wise, contemplative master and not just a bit slow and steroid-addled.

After winning a local Karate match, Nick and Ruben are approached by Mr C. (Edward Albert), one of Lee's associates, and they are invited to compete in Lee's illegal shootfighting tournament in Mexico. Ruben desperately needs the money and convinces Nick to go with him. As they progress in the tournament the rounds become more and more brutal, but they are invited back in a month's time to complete in the finals. Little do they know that the final round is a fight to the death. What's more, Shingo was one of the shootfighting officials who destroyed Lee's career; Nick and Ruben's invitation is merely a trick to lure Shingo to the tournament, so Lee can take his revenge.

Ruben leaves Shingo's school after he refuses to train him for the finals, so leading up to the tournament we have two interleaved training montages. Nick's montage is scored by Asian-style pipes and drums as he and Shingo partake in wholesome training activities like jogging and ab crunches. Shingo must be a great trainer because at one point he whispers something into some airballing kid's ear and he's immediately able to make three-point baskets with his back turned. Ruben's montage, on the other hand, is scored by thrash guitars as he trains by beating up Latino gangster stereotypes. It's the good and bad, the yin and yang, the Rocky and Ivan Drago of training montages.

It should be noted that Ruben is a complete ass to his wife throughout the film. He borrows money from gangsters without telling her, which is bad enough, but when his creditors start hassling him he disappears with Nick to Mexico so he can raise money in deadly shootfighting matches, leaving his wife at their mercy. When he returns his wife is understandably upset, so he pitches a fit about her "controlling his life" and leaves her. Interestingly enough, this plot thread is never resolved. Cheryl discovers that Ruben has gone back to Mexico to compete in the finals, but she never shows up, not even in the final few seconds for an "Oh, I guess they are back together now" post-victory embrace. I hope that when Ruben got back the locks were changed. Dick.

Thankfully Nick is a lot nicer to his love interest, a friend of Cheryl's named Jill (Sigal Diamant). She gets obsessed with him after one date, which is mostly spent sitting on the couch watching VHS footage of a brutal cage match. Normally this would be pretty weird but this movie takes place in an alternate universe where women go apeshit over brutal bloodsports. By the finale the female spectators are pumping their fists in the air and screaming for blood. Calm down, ladies, I thought you were better than this. Jesus.

The plot of this film doesn't make any sense at all. Shingo doesn't want Ruben to compete in Lee's shootfighting tournament, so why didn't he just tell him it was a death sport? Sure his English isn't great, but I think he could have got the point across. Al Swearengen and Mr. Lee in Deadwood managed okay and the only English Lee knew was "cocksucker". Instead Ruben heads down to Mexico and discovers that fact for himself. Nick goes after him but gets captured himself and the two brothers are forced to fight each other. Luckily Shingo shows up as well so Lee challenges him to a fight. It's a pity that the one fight with Bolo is such an over-edited mess, but the end-result is that Shingo mops the floor with Lee. Once defeated, Lee pulls a knife so that Shingo can finish him off with a gory arm break and one of his trademark gratuitous finishing moves while still retaining his honour.

This film has a lot of decent fight scenes, but unfortunately there's very little tension since the vast majority are between characters we have never met and will never see again. One fighter is named Boa and has a pet snake that he licks and fondles plus he likes to wriggle around like a snake and uses snake-style kung fu. I like it; he's got a theme and he's rolling with it. He's interesting to watch and I would have liked to see more of him (there's even another character named Mongoose that he could fight) but unfortunately he dies in his first fight when a huge black guy named Buck tears his heart out with his bare hands. This film doesn't even try to make you care about the characters before it kills them off. Give me a line of dialogue at least.

That aside, the choreography is pretty good and there is a large range of weapons on display. Most of the people are good screen fighters except for the real actors that are sprinkled among the cast to keep the performances from getting too distracting. It's an action packed and surprisingly gory entry in the venerable shirtless-musclemen-in-a-cage-match subgenre of action films, even if it suffers from a lack of plot, suspense, memorable characters and Bolo.

1 comment:

Ty said...

Great review. Loved Shootfighter, I call these types of movies: Punchfighters: meatheads just beating up in each other while rich men shout and hold money. Other examples include Cage, Balance Of Power (With Billy Blanks) and American Kickboxer 1.