Before last night, I had never before seen a film starring Don "The Dragon" Wilson. I know, it's a total failing on my part as a dude who grew up in the late 80s/early 90s, and who was into martial arts movies and whatever cheese was playing on Cinemax (on a related note, remind me to write about Angelfist one of these days). On first impression, I can see why Don "The Dragon" did fine in his niche. He's a good looking guy, with his angular features and massive ears making him look like the studly love experiment of Jason Scott Lee and Clark Gable. As a martial artist, he doesn't over do it with a lot of flash, moving well and cutting a nice presence. As an actor... he's one hell of a martial artist. Sorry, to his credit, Don "The Dragon" isn't quite as stiff as a stump, as I've seen many other martial artist-turned-actors be, but that's not saying a whole lot. The film doesn't require him to emote very much, and he pulls off not emoting much with great aplomb. And while his heavy voice with a distinct drawl doesn't always allow for the cleanest of line deliveries, it does give him an approachable charm. He's about as good on screen as Howie Long, is what I'm saying, and as the sole member of Firestorm Fans United, that's perfectly fine by me.
On the surface, the film itself is your typical kickboxing flick. A fighter is beaten to death, and his half-brother, Jake Raye (Don "The Dragon"), travels to Manila to find the killer, leading him to join an underground arena fight club, train under a mysterious master, make friends and enemies, and fall in love with a beautiful woman, all while dealing with that blood that keeps getting on his fist. About that, there's literally a moment in the climax where he holds up his bloody fist and looks at it, so at least they stayed true to their title.
What makes this film work is that somebody - be it director Terence H. Winkless, who went on to helm much of the first few seasons of Power Rangers, or screenwriter Robert King, who wrote stuff like Vertical Limit and Cutthroat Island before creating and being the head writer of The Good Wife - actually took some time to build interesting, relatable characters that I grew quite attached to in the first hour. The love interest, Nancy (Riley Bowman), instead of being a bland centerfold whom most movies of this type would just have stand there and occasionally show her boobs, has a grounded, real-world charm, with more focus spent on her wry grin than her rack (which, don't get me wrong, is a very lovely rack), and instead of being held off on the sidelines or becoming a damsel in distress, she stays active and involved with the story till the very end. I can't say Michael Shaner, who plays her brother and Jake's fast friend, Baby, is a great actor, but he does more than enough to make us fall for the lovably reckless party boy, especially when we first meet him pretending to pick a fight with Jake so he can flee a gambling debt. There's also the wonderfully odd character of a mute waitress (Marilyn Bautista) who's so touched by an act of kindness from Baby that she starts following him around and helping him out with stuff when he least expects it, and when they eventually hook up, it's so sweet. And then there's Kwong (Joe Mari Avellana), Jake's trainer. Typically, this would be a mysterious/mystical figure who sees great good in the hero which just needs to be fostered, or believes in the hero's path and wants to guide him towards finding it. No, Kwong wants a fighter who can score him prize money, and his messing with Jake's life for the sake of the ring gets to the point where Jake openly asks if he's holding up the search for the killer until they can go all the way, to which Kwong has no answer.
There's a lot of lightness and fun in that first hour, with all five members of this main group often bouncing off one another in the cramped quarters of a single apartment, where Nancy works on dance routines, Michael sleeps beneath a pile of dirty laundry, the mute woman produces trays of delicious food from who knows where, Jake is delighted by the distractions, and Kwong fumingly tries to keep him from being distracted. Even outside the arena, we have fun bits like a child who shows Jake a hidden hole in a wall where kids gather to watch the fights, or an encounter with thieves which doesn't go how they planned, or Kenneth Peerless bookending the story as adorably cantankerous Alan Moore-impersonator Hal, Jake's partner in the States who, it turns out, is now fleeing the IRS seizure of their gym due to back taxes.
Even in the club, the fighters are a colorful lot of mixed looks and styles, with no histories or personalities beyond this is the dude who's massive and doesn't feel any blows, this guy (fitness guru and motivational speaker Billy Blanks!) is extremely fast and likes to shatter bricks with his head, this guy has a dragon tattoo have you seen his dragon tattoo, and this guy is mostly deaf and wears headphones in battle because he can feel the beat of the music and it gives him rhythm. There's just enough there to keep characters straight as we see them fight off Redshirts, fight each other, and fight our heroes.
As I said, it's all light and fun and catchy and comfortable. Which makes it all the more gripping when the shit suddenly hits the fan. It's no surprise that Baby is dead meat, but they break out some wonderful stylization for his final battle, dropping the lights to spotlights cutting through a red haze, and pounding fists and agonized screams played silently against the sound of howling wind. Most of the foley work in this movie is crap with too much love given to crickets, squishes, and crackling joints, but wow do they play this scene just right. And this leads to Baby's mute lover taking up a gun only to have her head knocked in by the same fighter who killed her man. And then Hal recognizing Kwong as a notorious fight fixer who dramatic music dramatic music is the one who killed Jake's brother after Jake's brother killed Kwong's brother in a fight Kwong was trying to fix for Kwong's brother against Jake's brother. Brothers and brothers and brothers and now Jake has been slipped a drug and is fighting for his life
And just wow.
Yes, this is a clumsy film, and largely typical of the direct-to-video kick socky fare of its time. And the fights aren't that well choreographed or shot. And the lead is bland. And there's oddly noticeable cuts in the soundtrack. But this film pulls off something important: it makes me care. The characters are silly and are in a silly story, but nobody approaches it as cheese. You can feel people trying, the writer giving it some thought, the actors having fun with it, the director doing his best to capture it all. It feels like they cared, and so I care. Thus, when the film takes a sharp, brutal turn in the final third and the new tone never lets up, I've become so invested in these character that their fate has the blow of genuine tragedy. Even at the end, when Jake triumphs, it comes at such a cost (and the film PLAYS it as coming at such a cost), that the sadness in my heart didn't lift until well after the credits.
So yes, consider me a convert to the Bloodfist fandom. It's not a classic, and nowhere near my list of film favorites, but I had a good time watching it, and it successfully drew from me emotional responses I wasn't expecting to have.
Now on to the next eight!
And, yes, I do intend to review all nine films in the Bloodfist franchise, and you can blame Enbrethiliel for that. Her posts on Bloodfist and Bloodfist 2 were so amusing that I just couldn't resist checking at least the first one out for myself. And now that I have, I'm more than eager to see how the saga of Jake "Blood 'Don "The Dragon" Wilson' Fist" Raye continues.
Some additional random thoughts:
- Enbrethiliel gets into the specifics of the Philippine locale wonderfully in her post, and even as a foreigner to those shores, I agree it's used well to really build an active setting and culture around this story. Also, most films of this type would just have everyone magically speak English (*cough*Enter the Ninja*cough*), but here we actually get scenes of frantic confusion due to language barriers and culture clash, which lends it even more authenticity.
- Speaking of authenticity, I love how the strip club sequence, instead of being T&A cheesecake, is realistically uncomfortable and gross, with both the performers and audience having a drunken tiredness as they just go through the motions. It's another great touch, and lets the scene end on a character moment instead of just showcasing boobs.
- And just to carry this thread one more, for every awkward setup or poor editing choice in a fight scene, director Winkless pulls off some quietly clever stuff from time to time. On top of what I've mentioned above, there's the training on the volcano, Jake's first glimpse through the gate of the fight club, the quick flash of doctors pulling the blanket over Baby, the return to the setting of the opening kill for our final battle. There's a lot of genuine thought to the execution on display here. It's muted by clumsy skills, sure, but it's still a level of thought I recognize and appreciate.
- I like the setup of Jake being a kidney donor who had to retire from fighting following the transplant, and that Kwong has him use makeup to cover the scar so his opponents won't take advantage of it in battle, but maybe I missed something because I don't believe there's ever a payoff to this thread. Neither of the final two fights seem to aim for that area beyond basic torso blows, so why introduce the thread if you have nowhere to take it?
- I love how Jake is supposed to be a regular pugilist boxer who miraculously trains his legs to do split kicks and roundhouses over the course of, what, a week? A month? I'm pretty sure it takes a little longer than that. Must be all the mangos.
- How awesome is the creepy old blind due on the throne in the corner who draws the lots for who fights who. Especially love the moments where he drops the tile with each loser's name to the floor.
In conclusion, yes, you heard me right. The creator and head writer of The Good Wife was the same dude who wrote Bloodfist.