Thursday, 1 July 2010

Ring of Fire (1991)

I would totally watch a stage production of
Phantom of the Opera starring Don "The Dragon" Wilson

After watching Ring of Fire 3: Lion's Strike, I had a hankering to track down the previous two adventures of Don "The Dragon" Wilson as Dr. Johnny Wu. I like the idea of a hero who can both kick asses and heal them, something that crops up regularly in traditional Chinese kung fu films but only very rarely in Western action films. Unfortunately at this stage in the Ring of Fire trilogy Johnny is only in the business of healing asses as he is bound by a strict oath of non-violence. He refuses the pleas of his cousin Terry (Steven Vincent Leigh, Sword of Honor) to join his kickboxing team and take part in an underground fighting ring. As Johnny puts it "You beat them up, I patch them up".

Terry does his best to beat them up in the opening sequence, "them" being a rival kickboxing surf gang lead by Chuck (Vince Murdocco, who was apparently in Sworn to Justice although I don't remember who) and his friends Brad (Dale Jacoby from No Retreat, No Surrender) and Bud (Gary Daniels, Fist of the North Star). Terry gets his ass whupped at first, but his teammate Kwong (Eric Lee) saves the day with his drunken boxing. Chuck gets a thorough ass-kicking, much to the consternation of his fiance Julie (Maria Ford), who is sick of Chuck's constant fighting and the fact that he's a complete asshat.

It's actually quite a while before Johnny makes his debut appearance, but it's a pretty good one. It's one of those dramatic reveals where you only see him talking to his cousin with his back to camera and then it pans around to show his face and there's a musical sting and you go "Holy shit! It's Don 'The Dragon' Wilson!" Just in case you missed his name in the credits, on the DVD cover, plot summary etc. After dealing with his cousin he also gets harrassed by Sgt. Lopez (Michael Delano), a racist cop who is constantly accusing Johnny and his cousins of being thugs and drug dealers. I guess he must have worked through those race issues eventually because by the third film they are BFFs.

Actually, most of the film revolves around a blossoming relationship between Johnny and Julie. When they first meet at Johnny's grandmother's Chinese restaurant, Julie mistakes him for a waiter. Johnny plays along, making it the first time in human history where a doctor has pretended to be a waiter in order to hit on a girl. Johnny is smitten and begins to stalk her, showing up at a "Masquerade Ball" (more of a costume party really) dressed up like the Phantom of the Opera. Way more romantic than Chuck, who looks like some sort of post-apocalyptic Cirque de Soleil reject. The next day Johnny goes to the clothing store where she works and creepily professes his love to someone in the change room who he thinks is Julie but is actually a horny old woman. Wah-waaaah. Julie falls for him anyway, but she's still got to deal with asshole Chuck and his hatred of Asians. So you know, star-crossed lovers etc.

Although the two of them make a big deal about the reactions of their respective families, it all gets resolved fairly easily. When Julie shows her grandmother a picture of Johnny she solemnly intones "This is a problem," which may make her seem like a huge racist but it turns out she's fine with it and more worried about Chuck's reaction. Likewise with Johnny's grandma, who is horrified at first but after peppering Julie with questions she determines that Julie's an acceptable mate for her grandson. By which I mean she can cook and is of child-bearing age; granny isn't too hard to please. Soon they are indulging in a montage of romantic movie cliches, like eating ice cream on the boardwalk, kissing at sundown in sillhouette, doing tai chi on the beach etc.

Meanwhile Terry is having his own montage, only his consists of his intense poolside training regimen for the escalating race war between his Chinese bros and the surfers. It's sparked off for reals when Kwong, who is in his mid-40s but dressed like a 12 year old skate punk from the late 80s, invades the surfers' turf to hit on girls. Chuck's guys pants him in front of the girls and then Kwong sneaks onto the roof of a building and pisses on them in retaliation. That marks the end of the teen-sex-comedy type antics though, as the surfers' then corner Kwong in an alley and beat the shit out of him, putting him in the hospital. Tensions rise and eventually the conflict erupts into a stiffly choreographed street fight between the gangs. Luckily the police arrive and break things up before it gets out of hand.

Johnny tries to get his cousin to stop the turf war, but while Terry doesn't want any more violence he doesn't know how to stop things without looking like a pussy. Johnny suggests that Terry challenge Chuck to fight "they way they used to in Thailand" (or more accurately in Kickboxer) in a literal ring of fire with broken glass on their hands. That way when Chuck inevitably backs down from the fight Terry won't lose face. It can't possibly fail! Unless Chuck accepts the challenge, which of course he does, and soon Terry, who I'm sure wishes he thought the plan through a little better, is bleeding out on the pavement. Julie commits a huge faux pas by showing up at his Chinese funeral wearing black, but she needn't have worried because that is by far her least egregious fashion mistake in the film. I know it was 1991, but Jesus; Mom jeans with thigh-high hooker boots, acid-washed denim jackets, even a long-sleeve denim onesie. Behold Julie, Queen of Denim.

Surprisingly Terry's death still isn't enough to force Johnny into breaking his vow of non-violence. It's only when Chuck and Brad bust into Julie's aerobics class (more 80s fashion) and slap her around that Johnny finally decides to fight them in the ring. I'm surprised he didn't start beating them up right there, but it dissolves straight from Johnny glowering in the aerobics class to Johnny glowering at the underground fighting ring, so maybe he teleported them all there through the sheer force of his anger. Naturally it's a pretty one-sided match between Chuck and Johnny, so Brad leaps into the ring and starts beating Johnny around with a chair. What is this, WWE Raw? Chuck, in a fit of desperation, grabs a samurai sword and tries to stab Johnny, but Julie intervenes and gets slashed. Strangely this does not cause Johnny to go batshit and beat them both to a bloody pulp, rather Chuck and Brad immediately surrender after realising what they've done while Johnny carries the injured Julie out of the ring and out of the movie.

It was a pretty interesting decision to focus this film on interracial romance rather than kicks to the face. I liked that it isn't handled with kid gloves (Julie and Johnny even have a sex scene!) and when the two gangs are trash-talking eachother the racial epithets flow quite freely. Also, it's kind of refreshing to see such strictly racially-divided gangs, rather than the multicultural street gangs that tend to show up in films like this. In this respect you're definitely more than you'd expect from a direct-to-video Don "The Dragon" Wilson film. On the other hand, it's pretty light on the action. Johnny's vow of non-violence may give the final battle a bit more dramatic impact, but nobody picks up a Don "The Dragon" Wilson film to watch him make googly eyes at some blonde in a belly shirt. Now that Johnny has broken his vow of non-violence and dealt with his race issues, hopefully in the sequel they can get down to the business of kicking ass.

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