Chronologically, the gloriously titled Future Kick would be the latest in my watch-through of films by Don "The Dragon" Wilson, but it's been a little tricky to obtain, and I have a special occasion down the road I just may want to save it for. Heck, if that doesn't happen, I'll use it to cap off the project as a whole. With a title like Future Kick, it should be worth waiting for. I hope!
So next on the list is Blackbelt, and I hope you'll humor me going with a slightly different format this time around, as this is the one and only Don "The Dragon" film I've been able to track down the screenplay for, and I'd like to dive into that first before seeing how the finished film turned out.
The draft I have is a final dated September 4, 1991, by writer/director Charles Phillip Moore. A few others are credited on IMDb with the story - Robert Easter and Neva Friedenn, who wrote the 70s proto-slasher The Toolbox Murders, and Paul Maslak, Don "The Dragon"'s manager-turned-fight choreographer on a couple prior films, who'd go on to write and produce a number of the stoic kickboxer's future works - but the script is entirely by Moore, who made a number of Corman exploitation flicks throughout the 90s before vanishing.
The first character in the script we meet is John Sweet, who seems to be our hero as he brings a woman to a hotel and takes on a room full of goons, but it turns out he's actually an assassin, and the woman is a prostitute he then brutally tortures and murders. Yeah, so not Don "The Dragon". John turns out to be a Vietnam vet-turned-mercenary who's been using his missions and occasional mob hits to both feed and mask his urges as a serial killer. His mom was a red-headed pop singer in the 60s until the brutal murder/suicide of her and a lover (spoiler: child Sweet killed them both), and John's urges are now flaring out of control as a new red-headed pop star, Shanna, has released a sexed up cover of Sweet's mother's classic tune. On top of all this, Shanna is dealing with Eddie DeAngelo, a mob boss/record producer who's willing to break the legs of both her and her abusive manager/boyfriend in order to get her to sign to his label.
So she hires Don "The Dragon" Wilson as a bodyguard.
This time around, Don "The Dragon" is under the guise of Jack Dillon, an ex-cop who runs a martial arts dojo for under-privileged urban youth, while working on the side as a private eye, as we see in an opening seen where he tracks down a runaway teen being forced into prostitution in a very ooky sequence which helped set a tone I'll be getting to later.
Moore knows how to write for Don "The Dragon" well in that he keeps things simple, with no long speeches, and no powerful moments of drama beyond glares and sudden jump kicks. Surprisingly, the one and only description we get of Jack's appearance in the script is "He's handsome in a regular sort of way." C'mon, Don "The Dragon" at least deserves a little more than that!
So Dillon starts punching and jump-kicking his way through the various obstacles in Shanna's life - her manager, then DeAngelo - as he starts tracking down her mysterious stalker, leading to a final confrontation with Sweet in an adorably ridiculous fight with multiple "oh but you haven't beaten me yet!" moments of the fallen baddie springing back into action. It's a very by-the-numbers script, with numerous battles there just to show off what Don "The Dragon" can do, including a ridiculous sequence where half a dozen guys armed with uzis blow the shit out of his car until it explodes, then keep shooting the wreck up, not having noticed he's slipped out and ducked behind a dumpster, until he jumpkicks through the flames and takes them all out. Then there's an army of goons he has to fight through all at once to get to the bad guy, then another army of goons he has to fight through all at once to get to the other bad guy. There's the "kickboxer for hire" who shows up out of nowhere in a single scene so Don "The Dragon" can hire another buddy to have a fight scene against. Dillon and Shanna have the typical early 90s sex scene before breaking up then coming back together after everything in both their lives has been blown up. There's the best friends - Shanna's besty/assistant Barbara, who's gushing over her recent engagement, and Dillon's former partner on the force, Sturges, who puts too much faith in his snub-nosed magnum - who are obvious cannon fodder from the moment they're introduced.
It's all exactly what you'd expect an early 90s Don "The Dragon" script to be, though Moore does have a very clean writing style and smooth plotting, so it still works and is entertaining enough for the most part, with some nice moments like the kids at Dillon's dojo glowing at him having a hot pop star at his place, or the nice twist of Sweet's plot running in opposition to the goon tactics of DeAngelo instead of overlapping in a wrote way. It's not a bad script, just generic.
The main problem is that it gets so fixated on sexual violence against women that it becomes gross and uncomfortable, and keeps an otherwise fun script from being such. Shanna doesn't like cops because her father was a cop and raped her as a teenager. This has led to her seeking violent sex as she and her boyfriend like to slap one another around in the sack, which Dillon literally tames out of her by pinning her arms down and forcing her to accept his gentle, delicate loving. This is just... no. Not only does this add a non-consensual element that poisons Dillon as a character, but it uses rape for no other reason than to give Shanna a backstory and explain why she's such a rebel, such a "bad girl". On top of this, when Sweet catches up to her, he dresses Shanna as his mother, ties her spread-eagle to the bed, opens her top, fondles her boobs, then places the severed finger of her best friend between them. It's a gross level of exploitation I don't want from my Don "The Dragon" movies. You want to put boobs in there, go for it. But don't have them be from the incestuous rape victim being assaulted by the serial killer stalker who beat off to his mom. That's way too far down the Roger Corman rabbit hole for my tastes.
Oh thank goodness they toned a lot of that down. The film still follows the script for the most part, but the twisted sexual aspects, with the exception of Sweet's backstory, have largely been stripped away to the level of what we typically see in Don "The Dragon"'s films. There's boobs and a 90s blue-lit love scene, but the scene of Sweet with the tied down Shanna has been significantly tightened to focus on just the threat of murder instead of rapeyness, and her love scene with Dillon has entirely removed that aspect of him first "taming" her. Whether any of this was shot or not, the story is significantly less uncomfortable for the potency of those threads no longer being here.
In fact, much of the film as a whole is toned down. The fights are pretty quick and forgettable, and the big ridiculous moment of the script where Dillon leapt through the flames of his own exploded car to mow the goons down instead has everyone diverting to a warehouse full of empty boxes. Which is fine, actually, as they retool the overall tone of the piece as more a thriller than a martial arts action film. On the one hand, they lose the excitement and goofy moments, like Dillon jump-kicking something every 5 pages. On the other, the direction, while clumsy and pretty basic, does a nice job of building some atmosphere as all the various threads ratchet up. In fact, I was pretty bored and uninvolved in the first half, but as the story kept going along, it did slowly draw me into things, and even the needless record exec villain of DeAngelo started to grow on me. Now, I'm not saying it's particularly good, but it is at least watchable.
Don "The Dragon" is typical Don "The Dragon". He's stiff, but still charmingly so as they know how to write him these little bursts of dialogue that come out just right, and give him plenty of opportunities to just glare at things. He's still awkward as hell in the love scene (you haven't lived until you've seen Don "The Dragon" attempting to portray an "o" face while receiving oral), but he does have a few moments of genuine pathos, like when he's cradling his slain partner and trying to work up some tears, or when, after an argument with Shanna, he screeches his car to a stop and mentally debates whether he should go back or not. The dude is never going to be a master thespian, but he is picking up some chops here and there and is doing a nice job of quietly building on the unique charisma he's had since the start.
The rest of the cast is pretty forgettable. The partner, the best friend, the manager/boyfriend, they all just kind of come and go without leaving much impression. Deirdre Imershein isn't terrible as Shanna, flaring up with punk rebelliousness now and then, but she has zero chemistry with Don "The Dragon", and the few songs she performs are pretty awkward and uninspiring in terms of this being a breakout pop star with a new hit single. As for the other actors, remember that kickboxing buddy I mentioned above? Well, we not only get him (in a largely truncated and forgotten sequence), but the opening credits are littered with fully titled martial arts friends of Don "The Dragon", who pretty much play every single thug in the picture, whether they get to do martial arts or no. And quite a few of them do come together for the one really solid fight scene near the end as Dillon has to plow through an entire gym full of armed mercenaries. Unlike many of the fights which are over too soon, they let this one play out.
And the best decision they made was in the casting of Mattias Hues as John Sweet. The dude is just a monster to look at, in his beefy yet surprisingly lithe 6'5" frame and cascading blond locks. What really makes him special though isn't appearances, but in how those looks are counterbalanced by a delicate, quiet gentility with which he plays the menace of Sweet's madness. It's ridiculously over-the-top in many ways, especially as he's having flashbacks to making out with his mom as a teenager (thankfully not the child he was in the script), but Hues does some really interesting work with his eyes and how he carries himself, and makes you believe in this impossible villain, and almost, almost get swept up in his twisted tale.
I don't know, though, that it's ultimately enough to recommend the film. It is certainly watchable, Hues is captivating, Don "The Dragon" is dependable, and the big fight in the gym is a blast, but it doesn't make up for the remainder of the film largely being flat and forgettable. Again, not that it's bad. It's certainly not good, but it is competent and decent enough, yet there's so little of that spark of whimsy, that charm that kept wowing me and pulling me into the first four Bloodfist installments, that I don't know that I'll ever revisit this, nor that I think it's really worth anybody else's time to track down. If you're channel surfing late at night, sure, but you can otherwise skip it.