Round 1, Final Bout, Team Blanks vs. The Red Fist Club
“You’ve got steel balls, but no brains.”
How’s this for a weird twist on the fighting tournament movie: mismatched undercover narcotics agents Billy Blanks (USA) and Jalal Merhi (Canada) train real hard to enter an underground fighting tournament so they can impress crime lord Mr. Li (James Hong). It works, he hires them, and the tournament is never mentioned again.
Up until that point it has all the traditional tournament movie touches, though. The older mentor is Master Pan Quing Fu, a hall-of-famer martial artist who helped the Chinese government catch 23 Triad leaders in the ’60s, appeared in SHAOLIN TEMPLE with Jet Li, and is playing himself in this movie! We know he’s a good dude because when Mr. Li tries to “pay repects” to him with a bunch of cash Master Pan burns it with a torch.
Blanks and Merhi are on a mission to bust Mr. Li, and they know he runs a tournament, and they know only Master Pan can train them to be ready to enter. For his part Master Pan knows these guys are chumps and doesn’t really want to do it, but there’s a whole backstory about his son who was killed in the tournament or something so he decides he needs to redeem himself through this new blood, etc. So when he agrees to train them in his Eagle Claw style you get a feast of training montage material: running with arms entwined in sticks, hanging upside from ropes, pullups, katas on the beach with Master Pan standing on their backs…
…pushups on the beach with Master Pan still standing on their backs, jumping pushups, eagle claw pushups, lifting logs…
…punching through logs, tearing apart logs, kicking a heavy bag until the chain breaks, cutting off a dummy’s head with a sword, eating white rice…
And yes, you get some of the ol’ training montage type music, as well as a funny end credits rock song with the same title as the movie, performed by Jonas J. Patricko.
The tournament takes place in sort of a dimly lit club, a large mat instead of a ring. Spectators sit on folding chairs or stand, Mr. Li gets a small platform like an emperor. The ref is in a white coat with a black bow tie. Two wooden boxes are brought out, they contain weapons, and there is a coin toss to decide which fighter gets first pick of one of them. Win is by knockout, no counting though, just the judgment of the ref I guess.
There’s a whole subplot about a guy who owes Mr. Li money who decides to try to shoot him during the tournament. Blanks and Merhi stop him, and goodbye tournament story.
My favorite use of a worn out cliche in this movie is when the DEA boss makes it clear that both buddies are gonna be the Mel Gibson in this caper. “He’s also a loose cannon, so you’ll probly get along just fine.”
The LETHAL WEAPON/48 HOURS type buddy-cop shit is really forced, though. Blanks drinks beer, Merhi drinks grapefruit juice. Blanks complains about Merhi watching hockey, Merhi watches hockey. There’s a precursor to RUSH HOUR’s “never touch a black man’s radio” business as Blanks keeps trying to play some kinda dance music and criticize Merhi for liking “that Beethoven crap” (actually Mozart or somebody). “That’s like saying Michael Jackson, Hammer, same thing,” he says, automatically pinpointing this as a movie made some time during the window before people stopped thinking about MC Hammer but after he dropped the “MC.”
Both of these guys are so stiff with dialogue that it’s more awkward than funny when they do something like the scene where they discuss the case while in the midst of a high speed car chase to catch airport luggage thieves. Also, one of the ways they bond is that during their training they see a woman skinny dipping and Merhi mischievously steals her clothes and hides them. I thought Canadians were supposed to be polite.
It’s funny to see Hong playing the villain when he was already the older mentor earlier this round in BLOODSPORT II, but of course this is more like his standard character, an evil bastard who acts nice and claims to be “merely a businessman.” At the end he also busts out a fan and does some kind of bird style of kung fu, but it looks like it’s mostly a stunt double. His best contribution to the story is setting the stage for lots of kung fu and swordfights in the finale by banning his minions from carrying guns. “I don’t approve of weapons,” he says. My kinda villain.
His right hand man is, not surprisingly, Mathias Hues (I COME IN PEACE, KICKBOXER 2, NO RETREAT NO SURRENDER 2, FIST FIGHTER 2, TC 2000, etc. etc.). My favorite thing about his character is that he has to actually give the other minions fighting lessons and demonstrations, but instead of a proper dojo he has a modest office space with a shitty dropped ceiling and everything. But at least there’s a little table with trophies on it.
The DEA and whoever the Canadian equivalent is don’t seem to be very good at their jobs. They actually have an agent (Priscilla Barnes from POLICE ACADEMY and THE DEVIL’S REJECTS) already undercover in the organization, but they’ve given up on her because she never calls. They send our boys a fax with her headshot, labeled “Agent Cassandra Hubbard.” Shit! Don’t leave that laying around, you’re gonna blow her cover.
It turns out Agent Cassandra Hubbard just can’t get to a phone because she’s Mr. Li’s kept woman and they keep an eye on her at all times. She explains this while secretly in Merhi’s room, after he and not anybody in the organization prevented her from getting raped in the bathroom, and before they have consensual shower sex.
(Don’t worry, Blanks gets some too. They probly had it in their contracts that they got an equal number of sex scenes.)
By the way, Merhi wears bikini underpants. I don’t know if that’s a martial arts thing or a Canadian thing. Or a Canadian martial artist thing. But I figured it was worth noting.
Anyway, there’s a VHS blackmail tape in a safe, there’s getting arrested, there’s sneaking back in through vents, all kinds of excitement. The climax is pretty cool because Master Pan brings his army of traditional wushu people to fight against all these criminal thugs and what not. There’s bombs going off and they’re fighting with swords and pretending like it’s the old days.
And I gotta give it points also for going out on the perfect freeze-frame ending, where the two buddies do the Eagle Claw version of a high five:
symbols: Eagle on wall at tournament, dragon on mat and on curtain at casino. Yin-yang on wall at Master Pan’s school but also in Mr. Li’s training room (truly showing the balance of dark and light).
fight choreographers: Billy Blanks, Jalal Merhi, Master Pan Quing Fu (Pan’s Students and Li’s Army)
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.