June 15, 2014

Ring of Fire (1991 film)

Don "The Dragon" Wilson series index

Instead of pushing forward with a focus on just the Bloodfist franchise, I find myself so charmed by Don "The Dragon" that I've decided to dig more broadly into his career. I'm skipping his first two credits, small roles in New York China Town and Say Anything, as the former is tricky to find, and the latter will be coming up in a future project I'm doing down the road. Bloodfist was Don "The Dragon"'s debut leading role, and right after Bloodfist 2 came Ring of Fire, the first in yet another multi-film franchise, albeit one where he actually does continue to play the same character.

South California is apparently split between two gangs. And by gangs, I mean well off suburban yuppies constantly trying to out suburbanite yuppie one another. On the one side, you have the white douche bros of Venice Beach, led by the psychotic hair quaff of Brad (Dale Jacoby), who likes punching Asians over his father's death in Vietnam. On the other side, you have the residents of Chinatown, led by the recklessly charismatic Terry Woo (Steven Vincent Leigh), who's tired of white guys treating him like an immigrant in the country he was born in. This, of course, leads to lots of fighting, from heavily staged underground tournaments to escalating reprisal spats on the iconic beach front.

Amidst it all is a pair destined to fall in love over a fortune cookie fortune. Julie (Maria Ford) is Brad's meek sister, who works in a fashion boutique and is engaged to his slab of meat best bro Chuck (Vince Murdocco). Johnny Woo (Don "The Dragon"), Terry's cousin, is in the last years of his medical internship and prefers to focus on calming Tai Chi than the street fighting which keeps landing his family and friends in his emergency room. As these two meet and go through a series of dating montages and one hell of an awkwardly filmed love scene, they have to deal with the prejudices of families in a world unwilling to just quietly accept the love of people on two sides of the warring tracks.

That's right, this is the early 90s kickboxing version of West Side Story. West Coast West Side Story, if you will.

When I started watching my way through the Bloodfist movies, I had very low expectations. I thought they'd be stiff, clumsy, tedious, uninvolving chores that I'd maybe force my way through one or two of before giving up and abandoning the project to do something else. To my surprise and delight, I thoroughly enjoyed four Bloodfist films in a row. No, they weren't great movies, for the most part, but they were entertaining, engaging, and occasionally quite clever, with the charmingly stiff Don "The Dragon" being impressively watchable in spite of questionable acting abilities. With this film, we've sadly fallen backwards into the mire of where my expectations once lay, as this is not only not a good movie, but it's not fun and lacks the sparks and charms that made the others worthwhile.

I'm not going to go the obvious route and pin blame on them ripping off West Side Story, because Bloodfist 4 ripped off Charade and I still loved the hell out of it. Pulling out all the Romeo & Juliet tropes can work if done right, that just isn't the case here, as there's little beyond the surface cliches to really pull me into the story and keep my interest. We open with ten minutes of ring combat, and it's just basic combat, with no story, no characters, nothing strikingly choreographed in a memorable way. There's even a woman in the cast who does nothing in the first 20 minutes but repeatedly take her clothes off for no reason than hey here's some boobies, and while they're very nice boobies, it's just boobies there for the sake of boobies, and gets old.

Stuff happens in this movie because they needed to make stuff happen or else there'd be no movie there to lull people in to watch. Some of it should be interesting - like all the "here's what I can mash with my fists" training sequences, or the travelogue sight seeing of Johnny & Julie's dates, or an extended fight and chase along a graffitied wall - but the film is very amateurishly put together, with awkwardly framed and over-saturated camera work, and spotty, poorly recorded set audio. It's amusing to see the director occasionally try for a flourish - like intercutting fighting and sex, or going from Johnny accepting a challenge to immediately turning and revealing he's in the ring - but he's so incapable of pulling them off that they more often than not fall flat on their face.

The cast is... uneven. On the bad side, you've got Jacoby and Murdocco as Brad and Chuck, who, with their early 90s Venice Beach fashions and meat head delivery, look like they just sauntered off a shoot of Jersey Shore, with a trail of finger guns and hair gel in their wake. While the romance scenes are very sweet, Maria Ford feels like she wandered in from another movie, and actually drifts around at times as though she's lost. She's not a talented actress at all, which is unfortunate given how much of the movie is hinged on her romance with Johnny. And then there's Eric Lee as Kwong, an attempt at comic relief. Lee isn't bad, and is absolutely talented as a martial artist, but he doesn't pull off the forced humor of making his character a rowdy drunk who'll slide into his matches sloshed and still kick ass. And then he spends half the movie swinging around crutches, claiming he trained Bruce Lee, pulling a bottle of tequila out of his jacket, and none of it sells.

On the good side, we thankfully have Don "The Dragon" as Doctor "The Dragon" (which isn't just a joke, as he being a Dragon on the zodiac is a genuine plot point). Don is Don, he's stiff, but isn't struggling with his delivery like I've seen in other films, and actually makes a pretty convincing doctor. And by minimizing his fights, they get to show him doing good character work, like the tender romance, and many wonderful bits where he gets to show off his quiet sense of humor. There's one bit where Julie tries to play with him in the emergency room, only for him to turn the situation back on her, which is probably the best scene in the film.

Leigh is also great as Terry Woo, a loving friend and family man who keeps getting caught up in the macho standoffs, and doesn't realize until it's too late that he's made some wrong choices. Leigh has a genuine charisma and great talent in the ring, and I'd love to look up more of his stuff, as when Woo falls by Brad's hand, it left an impact. On the Venice Beach side... remember in my Bloodfist 4 review where I gushed over the presence of Gary Daniels and openly admitted to crushing on him? Well not only does he also appear here, with that glorious ponytail and ever-confused expression of his, but we get a solid minute of just watching him do splits and stretches and flexes as he prepares for a fight. Be still my heart. Sadly, he falls out of the story in the second half, but he sure made his presence felt while he was there. Even as he was being urinated on.

The absolute standouts, though, are the grandmas. In Chinatown, you have Mei (Jane Chung), Johnny's aunt who owns the family restaurant. She keeps going on and on about how he needs to settle down with a Chinese woman, but the moment she learns he's seeing someone white, she just pauses before shrugging it off and asking about Julie's sign and appraising her child-bearing hips. In Venice Beach, you get Julie and Brad's unnamed grandmother, who prefers things remain status quo just because she doesn't want anyone to get hurt, but when she sees Julie really loves Doctor "The Dragon", is all for it and pushing her to see it through. There's even a good moment where the lovers are forced apart by Brad, and her grandmother tracks Doctor "The Dragon" down herself, leading him to track down Julie at an aerobics class, and it's just so... oh god this aerobics class is so 1991 that I'm distracted. Forgot the point I was building to.

Anyways, neither are great actresses, but feel like real grandmothers and give their roles so much charming warmth and personality that it's a shame they're not in a film which carries that throughout. Instead of using them to build a sense of institutionalized, generational racism between the two sides, both show a wiser generation more open minded than the youths who focus so much of their lives on widening the divide, so the two give a great underlying heart which, in some small way, sets this narrative apart. Would have been cool to give the two a scene together. Alas.

But no, my first step away from Bloodfist, and it's my first solid "not recommend" of the Don "The Dragon" Wilson series. I knew not every film of his was going to be a winner, but had been having such a great streak of luck that this film still felt like smacking headfirst into a glass door. I'm hoping we'll have more like the last four and less like this as I continue the journey, but I guess I needed this humbling moment to prepare me for the likely possibility of future stinkers to come. Even the ending was a mess, as everyone magically comes together after Brad goes crazy with a katana and slashes his sister in the belly by mistake, and both sides realize the best hands for her to be in are those of Doctor "The Dragon" as they help him get her to safety. What the hell was that!

However, if you have a desire to to see a film in which Don "The Dragon" Wilson plays a game of Whack-A-Mole during a date, with absolutely no euphemism meant in that description, then this is your movie.


Enbrethiliel said...


ROFLMAO! I love this review! =D

Believe it or not, I found Ring of Fire to be more entertaining than Bloodfist 4. Also more shoddily filmed, but never mind that now. LOL! It's likely due in part to the fact that I have immigrant relatives in Southern California: although they're not Chinese, I guess I see them in the Chinatown residents. But it might be closer to the truth of things to say that I was able to stand Ring of Fire because I'm a girl. ;-P An ethnic gang war? Yawn. Star-crossed lovers? Bring it on!

Nevertheless, I can recall two romantic scenes which I thought even I--with absolutely no experience to my name--could have shot better than the director did: the one in the boutique when Johnny thinks he's talking to Julie in the dressing room . . . and the one in the aerobics studio (Bwahahahaha!) when they kiss and make up. I'll give you specifics if you like, but you probably already know exactly what I'd change.

As much as I liked the love story (as The Dragon makes a counter-intuitively charming leading man =P), I spent most of the movie highly annoyed at Julie for flirting with Johnny while she had a boyfriend. I hated it even more when Chuck turned out to be her fiance! And I spent most of that time trying to talk some sense into her through the screen, like the third grandmother who was left on the cutting room floor. =P Remember the scene when Chuck puts on some nice clothes, buys some flowers, and shows up where Julie works to invite her to lunch, and she tells him she's "tired"? I was so mad at her! First of all, the guy was making a real effort! Secondly, yeah, he's a meathead, but that doesn't make it right to string him along. Given how invested I was in her character arc, the scene when she finally breaks up with him was almost cathartic for me!

I really like the point you've made about the grandmothers turning out to be the most tolerant and actually teaching those young whippersnappers some wisdom! Go, grandmas! And now I should stop using so many exclamation points!

This was obviously a stinker for you, but will you be watching Ring of Fire 2 anyway? I watched about twenty minutes of it before I couldn't stand it any longer, but if you're still an obsessive completist, well, misery loves company, right? ;-)

NoelCT said...

So much of the film hinges on the romance, so had that worked better, I'd absolutely overlook the other stuff and still find myself enjoying the film. Sadly, while Don handles his end well, and there are some nicely written scenes between the two, Julie just doesn't work. Yeah, you're right about the way she drags out telling things to her fiance, and while there are many scenes showing her struggling with mixed emotions and indecision, Ford just isn't a good enough actress to sell those bits and give them a relatable humanity. And I'll admit, half the time I was too distracted by her adorably awful early 90s Venice Beach fashion to tell what else was going on. ;)

I absolutely know the scenes you're referring to. And that's what I mean by the overall direction in that, you can see in his head Munchkin knows what he's supposed to do, he just doesn't know how to translate that into actual execution. It's like when I try to draw something.

The grandmothers were so awesome! The film really needed a final tag of them sharing a pot of tea. Maybe the film should have ended with them showing up at the arena and dragging everyone out by their ears. :)

I probably will do part 2. I haven't decided how often I'm going to do this (and lord knows I have a track record of unfinished projects), but I am willing to see the whole of Don's career through. Especially since the next one he did was Futurekick. :D

But I'm definitely noticing these films he did for PM Entertainment do not have the level of quality as the stuff he did for Concorde/New Horizon. And I do sadly see that he has a few more done with this same director.

Tony Williams said...

I second Enbrethiliel. Great review!

Back in the 90s, I believe Cinemax was contractually obligated to play at least one Don "The Dragon" Wilson movie per month-and I watched nearly all of them. Unfortunately, they've all sorta blended together into one big, indistinguishable Don "The Dragon" Wilson mass in my mind.

Wilson is by no means the worst of the wannabe martial arts movie stars of the era, but he lacks Van Damme's impressive physical attributes and natural charisma, as well as Steven Segal's ponytail. It's not hard to see why he didn't break through into mainstream success.