Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Bloodfist 3: Forced to Fight (1992)

Someone done woke The Dragon

Those hoping to see the continuing adventures of Jake Raye may be disappointed to discover that Bloodfist III: Forced to Fight has absolutely nothing to do with the first two movies apart from Don "The Dragon" Wilson (World Kickboxing Assocation World Light Heavyweight Champion). It was originally intended to be released under the title Forced to Fight but the first two movies did well enough at the box office that this movie was shoehorned into the series.

Given it's origin, it's not surprising that this movie is a bit of an anomaly in the Bloodfist series. For instance, I believe it's the first and only film in the series that begins with a prison rape. The perpetrator is cell block kingpin Luther and, unfortunately for him, the victim is friends with Jimmy Boland (Wilson). Jimmy interrupts Luther's crazy rape face by dramatically throwing open the door while some squealing guitars let you know it's ass-kicking time. Luther stabs Jimmy's friend right in front of him (who is not enough of a friend to get a name) so Jimmy does some punching and Luther catches a shiv to the kidneys.

Unfortunately this incident is captured on closed circuit camera just as the warden is giving a guided tour to the press. As punishment, Jimmy is sent to Cell Block C, which is apparently even worse. From here I expected this film to turn into an underground prison fighting movie, like the Undisputed series, but it's a little more serious minded than that. In fact there's only two other names in the credits with martial arts bonafides, Stan Longinidis (K.I.C.K. World Heavyweight Kickboxing Champion) and Pete "Sugarfoot" Cunningham (World Kickboxing Association World Super Lightweight Champion) and both have fairly minor henchmen roles despite their top billing. It actually has actors and seems like it took longer to write than it did to watch. Like I said, it's an anomaly.

Apparently killing Luther cut off drug supplies for the cell block, so Jimmy doesn't exactly get a warm welcome. A friend of Luther named Blue (Gregory McKinney) is out for revenge and Jimmy earns the ire of a white power gang when he rejects an offer of friendship from their leader Wheelhead (Rick Dean). The only person who gives Jimmy the time of day is a creepy sex-offender called Diddler, whom Jimmy casually calls by his nickname as if he has no idea what it means. Under the protection of the warden, Luther and Blue join forces against Jimmy. Consequently Jimmy is coerced to skirmish and we all learn a few lessons about race. For instance, I learned that black people think that white people "smell like dogs after they get out of the shower". And also that dogs shower.

What I liked about this film is that the bad guys are little more nuanced out than usual. I liked the part where Wheelhead relates a childhood story of his mother making him grilled-cheese sandwiches, and even though Diddler is an unabashed pedophile (there's even a scene where he ogles a little girl in the visiting room while creepy music plays) he's treated with an unusual amount of sympathy and even allowed a little redemption arc. How often does that happen in a genre film, let alone in a Bloodfist film?

Jimmy kinda lucks out in that his cellmate is Stark, a Malcom-X-loving, self-taught lawyer who is greatly respected by the other prisoners. He's played by Richard Roundtree, which is awesome, and he gives what is maybe the best performance in the whole Bloodfist series. Stark introduces Jimmy to a multi-racial group of peaceful prisoners who hang out in a rooftop garden utopia. Somehow they have access to gardening equipment, deckchairs, televisions and enough cooking materials for the goofy Italian stereotype to make them baked ziti every day. It makes prison life look pretty cool. They even get to watch Corman's own TNT Jackson on movie night.

I don't think this movie is a particularly realistic depiction of prison life, to be honest. It seems to be some sort of "Free Range" prison, where inmates are free to roam anywhere they please. They have unfettered access to gasoline and sharpened tools and they are even allowed to start small fires in their cells. Everyone seems to be armed with a shiv, sometimes two. There's maybe two prison guards in the whole complex and although the warden claims that the place is automated to the point that "one man does the job of a dozen" it all seems pretty low tech and more like two men doing the job of nobody.

Like all protagonists of prison movies, Jimmy is innocent of his crime. Apparently he was involved in a bar-room brawl that got out of hand, and the police blamed him because of his mixed-race heritage. You know those half-Japanese guys, always stirring up trouble. When Jimmy complains to Stark about being a victim of racial prejudice I think Stark displays surprising restraint in not telling Jimmy to go cry him a fucking river.

Even though it's full of prison movie cliches (is there a riot at the end? Maybe. Okay, yes) I kind of liked this one. The fighting is infrequent and not particularly well choreographed, but it didn't bother me too much since that clearly wasn't the priority. That makes it pretty unusual as a Bloodfist film, and so unfortunately Roger Corman's cunning ruse to slip this film in under the Bloodfist banner backfired. The film did poorly and Don "The Dragon" Wilson was sentenced to Direct-to-Video prison for a minimum of five Bloodfist sequels. A harsh sentence, but fair. The Bloodfist movies never really belonged in the cinema.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Bloodfist II (1990)

No shotguns allowed, Don! You're destroying
the sanctity of this brutal deathmatch!

Apparently after winning the Red Fist tournament Jake (Don "The Dragon" Wilson, World Kickboxing Association Light Heavyweight World Champion) returned to America and became a professional kickboxer. I guess he got over that whole missing kidney thing. During his championship bout he accidentally kills his opponent so he vows to never fight again, complete with a cry of "NEVER!" and the ceremonial tossing of his championship belt into the crowd. Two years later he's living in a crappy apartment and sleeping with convincing-looking skeezy prostitutes. He gets a phone call from his old friend Vinny Petrello (Maurice Smith, World Kickboxing Association World Heavyweight Champion) who has gotten himself into a few money problems in the Phillipines. Naturally it's up to Jake to pack his bags and head off to Manila. Again.

In typical Don "The Dragon" Wilson fashion, Jake heads straight from the airport to an attempted mugging. I do like that the thugs attempt a surprise attack by kicking a soccer ball at his head. That's some weak-ass shit, muggers. Jake shows them up in the next scene, at the gym where Vinny was last spotted. One of the guys there says to Jake that he "only talks with fighters, you dig?", so Jake kicks the punching ball so hard that it breaks off it's chain and hits a guy in the boxing ring in the back of the head, knocking him unconscious. He was wearing headgear too. That's a move both baller and off the chain.

Afterwards Jake confronts the owner of the gym, a weasely German nerd named Dieter. It's pretty clear where this movie's sympathies lie on the jocks vs nerds continuum, because everybody, including the other bad guys, treat Dieter with open contempt. At one point Jake even shouts "Fuck you, geek!" with the same venom you'd reserve for child molesting racists. Dieter calls in his goons and Jake fights and runs and fights and runs, but eventually finds himself drugged and put on a boat with the rest of the gym rats to compete in a high-stakes baking competition where only the most skilled with a piping bag will survive. Nah, just kidding. It's a secret underground fighting tournament.

While the first film was a Bloodsport rip-off, the second does a low-budget riff on Enter the Dragon. The tournament takes place on a secret island which is ironically named Paradise, although thanks to Black Dynamite I can't think think of it as anything other than Kung Fu Island. Joe Mari Avellana returns as the main villain, although he's playing a different character, a Bond-like villain named Su. Cris Aguilar also returns as one of Su's henchmen. If Jake notices all these villainous doppelgangers running around he doesn't say anything.

The other competitors are mostly real-life martial artists, including Timothy Baker (International Karate Champion World Karate Champ), James Warring (World Kickboxing Association World Cruiserweight Champion) and Richard Hill (International Sport Karate Association World Welterweight Champion). I really liked these guys. They aren't actors or pretty-boys but they're likable and there's a cheerful, ramshackle charm to their performances.

Jake manages to escape pretty early on, busting his way out of the most pathetic shackles ever, and spends a good chunk of the movie Die Harding his way around Su's mansion. He's helped out by a hot girl named Mariella (Rina Reyes), who is in league with Su at first but eventually falls for Jake's wooden charms. When he first meets her she is demonstrating her flexibility in a shiny leotard, just like his love interest in the first film. He's got a type, I guess. She turns out to be Su's daughter, which dumps all sorts of subtext onto an earlier whipping scene that I don't want to think about.

There are some pretty funny cartoonish touches to this film. Jake is able to get the drop on the guards over and over again, usually by tiptoeing a couple of steps behind them like Wile E. Coyote. My favourite part is where Vinny, who is working for Su as it turns out, comes up with an ingenious "plan" to stop Jake. He lures Jake down a hallway and around a blind corner and then, hidden off-screen, swings out with a plank of wood and knocks Jake unconscious. Ah, the old plank-to-the-face trick.

It turns out that Su and Dieter have developed a super-steroid which turns his fighters into grunting, indestructable death machines. Su intends to force the fighters into death matches with his 'roid-monkeys, providing entertainment for the standard assortment of rich fucks as well as giving a demonstration of the super-steroid to his investors. Su is very traditional about his deathmatches, with uniformed, spear-wielding guards and the whole thumbs-up, thumbs-down death signal. Of course it's the black guy who gets the thumbs down.

I always like watching the crowd in these death arena fight movies. It's mostly businessmen in suits, as you'd expect, but there's always a few old women and middle aged tourists mixed in among them. It's always funny watching some middle-aged accountant-looking dude screaming insanely as a muscleman dispatches his opponent with a Bolo-style neck stomp. I'd like to think it's a commentary on exploitative tourist culture, but really I think it comes down to whatever extras they could rustle up on the day.

Jake's final showdown with Vinny seems to mirror the kickboxing match that opens the film, with Vinny ultimately badly beaten and barely on his feet. You might assume that the residual guilt would make Jake pull his punch or otherwise hesitate in killing his friend, but instead he executes a lethal flying kick that snaps Vinny's neck. It's pretty weird. I suppose he assumed that Vinny was going to do that whole "you showed me mercy and now I shall reward you by stabbing you in the back" thing.

Afterwards Jake has a fight with Su that goes through his laboratory, right through his house and onto the balcony. There's a pretty funny part where Jake goes apeshit and tosses aside a table that is clearly made of rubber. Su actually does do the whole "you showed me mercy and now I shall reward you by stabbing you in the back" thing, so Jake kicks him over the balcony ledge. If only he had some rubber lawn furniture down there he might have survived. I did like how all the good guys silently stand over Su's dead body for about three seconds before leaving. These Bloodfist films are less than 85 minutes long, so there's no time for dénouement.

Actually there's barely time for anything in this film except for fighting. From start to finish I don't think the film goes more than ten minutes without a fight. I like the way they separate Jake and the other fighters so they can cut to one of the deathmatches after each chunk of exposition or embarrassing romance scene. Usually in these films they have one long string of fights at the end, which gets dull quickly. The choreography is much improved over the first film too, with some cool techniques and a nice sense of rhythm.

I liked this movie better than the first, mostly because it had a similar setup but ditched everything non-fight related. No more boring crime-solving where Jake tries to solve a mystery that we already know the answer to. No more boring training montages where we watch Jake spend five minutes running up a hill in high-waisted pants. Just more of what we came to see 1) blood and 2) fists. If you like both of these things and you've got a high-tolerance for direct-to-video crappiness, then check out Bloodfist II.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Bloodfist (1989)

Blood? Check. Fists? Check.

Roger Corman isn't one to sit idly by while a popular cinematic fad runs it's course, and Bloodfist was his attempt to cash-in on the recent success of kickboxing movies, Van Damme's Bloodsport being the most obvious influence. I would have liked to be in on the meeting where they decided on the title. "Blood... fist?" "Sure, why not? Let's go get hammered." Bloodsport, Kickboxer and even Shootfighter make some semblence of sense in context, but Bloodfist just hastily throws together two fight-related words and calls it a day. This half-assed approach extends to most aspects of the film.

During the opening credits, each of the principal actors are listed by name and martial arts credentials, a trend that would continue throughout most of the series. I like it. The filmmakers are letting you know up-front where their priorities are. Don "The Dragon" Wilson (World Kickboxing Association Light Heavyweight World Champion) plays Jake Raye, part-owner of a small boxing gym. He is a boxing coach, having retired from professional fighting after donating a kidney to his half-brother. He says that fighting with one kidney is suicide, but that hasn't stopped his brother from competing in underground fighting tournaments. I can only assume that Jake's brother had two perfectly healthy kidneys and Jake donated a third to make him an unstoppable fighting machine. Then again, this whole kidney thing is never mentioned again, so who knows?

Jake gets a phone call from Manila stating that his brother has been found beaten to death in an alley and could he please come and collect the body because it's stinking up the joint. Within a few minutes of arrival, Jake (looking completely inconspicuous in his Hard Rock Cafe LA t-shirt) is witness to several acts of street crime, including an attempted theft of own his suitcase which he foils by kicking. When he gets to the police station the police chief nonchalantly hands him an urn of his brother's ashes and tells him to be on his way. Seems a little premature for cremation, but at least Jake can take him back as carry-on luggage. The police seem spectacularly uninterested in solving the murder, so Jake does some investigating and finds out his brother was involved with the Red Fist Fighting Club, a organisation that stages one of those high-stakes underground fighting tournaments for the super rich.

Jake meets a wise martial arts master named Kwong (Joe Mari Avellana) who offers to train him for the tournament so he can find his brother's killer. Jake also meets another American fighter named Baby (Michael Shaner), who is ostensibly comic relief but mainly an annoying asshole. Baby is followed around by this mute Filipino girl who sleeps with him and makes him breakfast before leaping out the window, so I guess she's pretty much the perfect woman. Jake also finds a love interest, Baby's sister Nancy (Riley Bowman). She's a dancer (read: stripper) and when he first meets her she's dancing on the roof in a purple leotard to a terribly synthesised Asian pan flute. She's trying to get a job as a translator and she's always listening to language tapes on a walkman, even when they are on dates and during Jake's death matches, which strikes me as pretty rude.

All of the cliches are present and accounted for. Kwong puts Jake through several gruelling training montages while the competition is whittled down to a few final contenders. Rob Kaman (World Kickboxing Association Junior Light Heavyweight World Champion) plays Raton, a self-obsessed Dutch fighter who "uses music as inspiration". Billy Blanks (Professional Karate League World Champion) is great as a fighter named Black Rose. I've always liked Billy Blanks so it's a shame his scenes are pretty short.

Like in Bloodsport there's also an indestructable Asian muscleman who communicates solely in grunts, a genre trope that's always struck me as pretty racist. Here it's fulfilled by Kris Aguilar (Southeast Asia Kickboxing Champion) playing Chin Woo. He's so hardcore that he eats cockroaches instead of squashing them and routinely kills his opponents, which doesn't seem to bother anyone, least of all the police. By the end of the film he has murdered most of the other opponents and beaten Baby into a coma, making him a prime target for Jake's bloodfist.

There's actually a pretty decent twist at the end. Turns out that Kwong has a bizarre scam going where he trains up world-class fighters and then sabotages the final match and bets against them. Seems to me that there would be a lot more money to be made by actually training up world champion fighters, but who am I to question a wise Asian master? There's a really funny part where Jake is suffering the effects of a poisoned mango in his final match with Chin Woo, and Jake's partner tips him off to Kwong's treachery with a hilarious slow motion cookie monster voice. Jake's final fight with Kwong isn't particularly good since Avanella is clearly not a fighter, but that's cool because the rest of the cast are clearly not actors. Acting skills and ass-kicking skills tend to be inversely proportional, so in a movie like this you need to seed the cast with a few actual actors.

Of course a movie like this comes down to the fight scenes and unfortunately they are not that great. The choreography is mediocre and the frequent slow motion only highlights how much the punches and kicks miss their mark. Many of the fights are badly paced, with the two competitors simply trading blows without any sense of momentum. It's a pity, because in several of the fights it's clear that the competitors have the skills to pay the proverbial bills (Wilson vs Blanks is a particular highlight). I guess Bloodfist is a fairly average secret-underground-fighting-tournament movie, but it's watchable and at just a shade over 80 minutes it doesn't waste too much of your time.