Monday, 5 July 2010

Ring of Fire 2: Blood and Steel (1993)

My diagnosis? Terminal homoeroticism.

My major complaint with the first Ring of Fire film is that it was a little light on the action, but you certainly can't make that claim about the sequel. The movie starts with a violent jewellery store robbery, a fistfight, multiple gunfights, a car chase and a big explosion, and that's just in the first five minutes! Dr Johnny Wu is in the store at the time of the robbery, picking out an engagement ring with his fiance Julie (Maria Ford, now a redhead) and when Johnny defenestrates a criminal dumb enough to try and steal their ring, another robber shoots Julie in the shoulder. Good thing her fiance is the world's best kickboxer/surgeon.

As Julie coalesces in the hospital and discusses honeymoon destinations with her fiance, she is visited by most of the major players from the first film; Brad (Dale Jacoby), Chuck (Vince Murdocco), Lee (Ron Yuan) and Kwong (Eric Lee). Kwong is still dressed like a teenage skate punk and is played for even more laughs as a creepy sex pervert. Actually it's pretty amazing how friendly everybody is with eachother considering that in the previous film they were engaged in a violent gang war, not to mention the fact that Chuck and Brad stabbed Julie and tried to kill Johnny. I guess Johnny isn't one to hold a grudge.

You know who does hold a grunge though? Kalin (Ian Jacklin), the curly-haired leader of an extremely homoerotic underground street gang and brother to one of the injured jewellery thieves. Him and his crew, dressed in matching leather daddy outfits, break into the hospital and try to bust him out, but when Johnny intervenes the robber is accidentally shot in the head with an uzi. Whoops. Kalin is captured by the police, but his second-in-command Predator (Evan Lurie) breaks him out of the prison bus by running it off the road so it explodes in a huge fireball. Kalin's fine though. In revenge they kidnap Julie from the hospital and ransom her for 250,000 dollars, but of course the only thing Johnny is going to give them is 250,000 kicks to the face.

I thought that the gang's post-apocalyptic meets gay-S&M-club outfits were a little weird, but it turns out that they are just one of the many themed street gangs that populate a network of subterranean tunnels under L.A. When Johnny enters an underground tunnel to try and find Kalin he's immediately attacked by a gang of thugs wearing hockey masks and twirling torches like nunchaku. He defeats them, but two of them tear off his shirt so he's got an excuse to spend the rest of the film half-naked. He then befriends Ernest (Sy Richardson), a crippled homeless veteran who lives in an underground commune of crazy homeless people, including the obligatory out-of-work Shakespearan actor. I don't know why but there's always one of those guys in every homeless community. Must be an L.A. thing. He explains that to find Kalin and rescue Julie, Johnny must run a maze of underground tunnels and face a gauntlet of themed gangs.

So yeah, the film is basically a rip-off of the The Warriors. There is even a DJ running an underground (literally!) radio station that broadcasts updates to all the gangs, except instead of a sexy woman it's a flaming homosexual. Like any Warriors rip-off it comes down to how fun and creative the gangs are, and - save for one gang who wear samurai armour made out of garbage and hide under styrofoam rubble to ambush intruders - they aren't that interesting. There's a gang who wear roller skates and neon netting. There's a gang who twirl neon nunchaku. It was the early 90s, you see, so there's a lot of neon around the place. So much so that there's another gang called the Shadow Warriors who blend into the background by wearing black outfits with with neon stripes all over them.

As Johnny works his way through the tunnels he is followed by his friends Chuck, Brad, Lee and Kwong, so typically each gang will be fought twice, once by Johnny and then again by his friends. Eventually Kwong gets separated from the main group, which is nice because his solo fights are some of the best in the film. He gets to use a three-section staff and fight a female bodybuilder while he gropes her and makes lavacious comments. Meanwhile Chuck, Brad and Lee stumble across a gang of sexy dominatrix prostitutes with their own subterranean strip club. This was one of my favourite scenes, for obvious reasons but also because of Chuck's hilarious delivery of the line "Let's get NA-KED!"

There is another line of dialog that sticks in my mind. It's a minor quibble but I have to get it out of my system. When Ernest and Johnny are first attacked by a street gang and Ernest tells Johnny "let's see how many balls you got". This strikes me as a strange turn of phrase, since fortitude is usually (and erroneously) correlated with the size of one's testicles, not the number. You wouldn't say that a particularly courageous guy must have, like, fifteen balls. He'd have a scrotum that looked like a bunch of grapes in a sock. Surely the answer would be either zero or two, in which case you'd say "let's see if you've got any balls". Sure, Johnny might have a single testicle due to a medical issue, but if so then it's a particularly insensitive remark on Ernest's part.

Actually Ernest has the closest thing to a character arc in the movie. They try to work in a few Serious Moments about homelessness, but it's pretty silly and patronising. I found the ending particularly insulting; Johnny offers to help Ernest find some work and get back on his feet, but Ernest decides he prefers the simpler life of living in a sewer and self-medicating his mental illness with alcohol and drugs. Still, I think it's fair to say that social commentary isn't top priority when you list everyone's martial arts credentials before their acting credits. Back then you couldn't just train up a pretty-boy pop star for a few months and put him in an action film, you had to be "5 time World Karate Champion" or something.

After the somewhat realistic first film, number two in the Ring of Fire saga takes a pretty surreal turn. I didn't know that subterranean gang violence was such a problem in Los Angeles. It's also pretty much non-stop action sequences, strung together with the simplest of rescue-the-girl plots, like a videogame. There's even two fake endings, culminating in a car stunt and a big explosion. The fights are pretty good though, choreographed by Art Camacho as were all the Ring of Fire films. The only fight that doesn't work too well is the one with the hockey mask gang, since it's lit primarily by their twirling torches. I enjoyed Ring of Fire 2: Blood and Steel and I also like that you can swap around the words "Fire", "Blood", and "Steel" and still have a servicible action movie title.

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