Building on how Bloodfist 2 had so little continuity with Bloodfist 1 that Jake Riley seemed like a completely different dude in both, Bloodfist 3 tosses Jake aside entirely and sets the remainder of the franchise down the path of each being a separate film with a separate lead, with only the Bloodfist moniker and the presence of Don "The Dragon" Wilson (in all but the last) being what strings these together in the barest minimum requirement for being a series. This wasn't actually started through intention, as Forced to Fight was produced as a separate film, and even lacks the tagged on Bloodfist 3 when the title appears in the credits. The brand was slapped on to give it an extra kick in theaters, but it didn't succeed as the film performed so poorly (pulling in just over $35,000 in its limited theatrical run) that every other installment from here on out will be straight to video.
This is a prison movie, and with the presence of Don "The Dragon", and a title like Forced to Fight, I went in expecting something where the guards force the inmates into cage matches for amusement and bets. Surprisingly, this isn't the case as we get a much more grounded story of harsh prison life. The current warden, Goddard (Richard Paul), is in the process of stepping down from the role as he campaigns to become district attorney. As he's giving a press conference about how clean and methodical his prisons are, and how he hopes to spread his techniques to other penal systems nation wide, we intercut with a young man being viciously raped and shanked to death by a gang of his fellow inmates. Unfortunately for them, this young man was a friend of Jimmy Boland (Don "The Dragon"), who proceeds to kick them until they stop moving.
Sweeping the mess under the rug, Jimmy is transferred to a rowdier cellblock ruled by two gangs: the whites, run by the slinky and slimy Wheelhead (Rick Dean), are all racist bastards who see the recent death as a win for their side as Jimmy's victim, Luthor, was a major player for the blacks, now run by the ripped and intense Blue (Greggory McKinney), who's miffed that Luthor is gone as the man was his supplier of drugs (and, it's also hinted, may have been his lover). With Jimmy wedged between the two sides, both of whom sneer at him as both an Asian and a man of mixed race, I expected this to become a Yojimbo story, of him playing both gangs into taking one another out. Again, I was surprised.
The anchor, to the point of almost becoming the lead of the film, is Samuel Stark (Richard Roundtree), an old crook who used his time to educate himself in the law, which not only has him looking forward to an upcoming parole, but also makes him the trusted and beloved patron of the prison as he helps out other inmates with legal and philosophical advice. He represents a third faction of the cellblock, the old fogeys who just want to do their time, and sit back and shake their heads at all the tense grandstanding going on between Wheelhead and Blue, and when both gangs repeatedly try to take Jimmy out, Stark pulls him under the wing that commands respect from the others not through fear, but from guidance and compassion. Which doesn't mean Stark can't kick ass as there's a great fight that breaks out in his garden that he puts an end to with a baseball bat and a speech.
This is what really sells this film, the richness of the characters and their philosophical struggles as they use their own loathing towards themselves and the system that holds them as a weapon to bully others in the hopes of relieving their own misery by passing it along. Which doesn't work, of course, and Stark ends up pulling most of the factions together as brothers, with the exception of Wheelhead and Blue, who themselves put their differences aside and bond over their mutual hatred of Stark and Jimmy. Which carries us into the third act as they knife the old man, start a massive prison riot in front of news cameras and a blubbering Goddard, and have their final showdown with Jimmy. Who wins in a very awesome way as, instead of just kicking their ass, he douses them with fuel and holds a torch over them until they confess to their crimes and are dragged off to isolation.
It's a surprisingly deep and moving film for what it is as, for all its macho bluster and prison rape and shanks and racial sneers, it puts a surprising amount of focus on the characters, stewing in their misplaced hate, their loneliness and isolation from the world, the friendships they forge, the clashes between different interpretations of "respect". There's great lingering moments on the visits with relatives, the old fogeys joking around a grill of ingredients from their garden, the bawdy delight of a screening of the topless fight from TNT Jackson, and a great series of dissolves over cells of random inmates, fighting, playing cards, lighting up joints, jerking off, or just staring through the bars at the moonlight. I can't say I'm too familiar with the career of director Oley Sassone, who did a handful of Corman movies before moving into TV, but I'm very familiar with cinematographer Rick Bota. I can't say as he has the best list of credits, even after becoming a director in his own right, but it's a lot of genre work that I enjoy, and throughout the 90s, his name always caught my attention as I dug his crisp work on Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight and especially House on Haunted Hill. With Forced to Fight, he makes great use of shadows cutting through the orange haze of the heated climate and characters as glistening sweat runs onto the cold greys and blues of the prison. Add to that the bluesy soundtrack of tired guitars and wailing saxophones, and you're drenched in that perfect atmosphere the early 90s could pull off so well.
This is considered to be the best film in the series, and while I agree it's the best I've seen so far, I wouldn't go so far as to say I enjoyed it more than the last two. They had a quirky charm and heart to them which really tickled my spirits and won me over. While this blows them away in terms of actual execution, it doesn't have that same charm that made me fall for the "family" of Bloodfist or root for the captured fighters of Bloodfist 2. This isn't to the film's fault as a very different tone is what it's aiming for, but I'm always on a wary edge with this cast as I never know who to fully trust. Jimmy is so thoroughly sidelined by Stark (probably because Roundtree is the much better actor of the two) that we never really get to warm to him as he's presented as our hero solely because he's our hero. It gets to the point where so much of the story is about Stark that Jimmy is just a supporting player in his own film, and Stark even gets the final victory moment as he makes parole and takes his first steps outside the prison walls. Don't get me wrong, I like Stark, but they almost should have gone there and just make it his movie, instead of playing the dueling spotlights between him and Jimmy, because the final film feels a little wobbly as a result, always wanting to focus on one side despite knowing the reason they're there is to focus on the other.
The film has a few other problems, too. The fights are very simply choreographed, with none of the great power and flourish we saw in the last film, and are broken up by a bit too much editing. Too much of the emotional arc of the film is hung on Diddler (John Cardone), a bookish and beat upon dweeb who buddies up to Jimmy and helps him out of a few scrapes before taking a shank to the gut. The problem with this arc is the reason why he's named Diddler... HE'S A PEDOPHILE, WHO WE LITERALLY SEE AT ONE POINT FANTASIZING ABOUT A LITTLE GIRL. Now, having a character like that take positives actions and help save the day isn't the problem, but that they play it like it's a redemptive arc, and never once confront him about what actions lead to his incarceration or what scars he's potentially left on the children he victimized. It's an odd choice to go so far out of their way to make us care for this character, and it ultimately leaves a bitter taste. And finally, while they do a great job of laying out the factions amongst the inmates, they fail when it comes to making the wardens and guards into another faction. The guards themselves are your typical schlubs with their hands on their clubs, smirking at fights until they move in with slurs. The pompous Goodard is fun, but only bookends the film as he largely leaves his position in the charge of Taylor (Charles Boswell), a sadistic guard with his own aspirations for power. Taylor, with his spindly mullet and bowtie, just plain isn't a menacing figure, and entire swaths of the film go by without seeing him, so by the time he starts making moves, it feels like an afterthought. He doesn't ruin the film, as Blue and Wheelhead are strong enough villains to carry it without him, but it's still a letdown in an otherwise sharply constructed story.
And it is a very well put together piece of work, to the point I'm a bit surprised they didn't give it more of a theatrical push. No, it never would have been a massive hit, but it's got some great character drama, has a slick, theatrical gloss on the production side, and the action is just good enough that it could have worked as a quiet crowdpleaser. Even without the Bloodfist moniker, which doesn't really add anything, and does largely misrepresent this as it's a film with such a different tone and style than the last two (have I mentioned it opens with anal rape?).
Overall, it's a solid film. It's a very hard and gritty film, one I wouldn't recommend to as wide an audience as I would the first two, but for what it is, it's surprisingly thoughtfull and well made, more compelling in its deeper aspects than in its surface grit and action.
- For all its legitimate themes about power, freedom, and hate, it's still a wildly unrealistic movie, with prisoners largely wandering about the prison freely, even in and out of the visitors section without having to pass trough security barriers. And when the riot happens at the end, nobody touches the roomful of visitors, instead running back to the cell block for their protests, the reporter and her cameraman in tow. Yes, I know it's because they've all unified under Stark and are merely setting out to expose the corruption of the system, but it's ridiculously tidy.
- Speaking of Stark, I actually don't mind the cheat of him surviving at the end. Not only does it go against expectations, but provides a welcome sigh of relief after the 90 minute boil of tension leading up to it, Instead of feeling cheap, it feels earned.
- I like that even Wheelhead and Blue get their human moments, not only from the neutering of having their gangs abandon them, but little touches like the genuine and personal sting Blue feels over Luther's death, going well beyond the man merely being a supplier, or Wheelhead toasting a sandwich over a fire as he reminisces about the ones his mother used to make. These may be awful human beings, but they're still human.
Don "The Dragon" Wilson series index