I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

The Super-Kumite finals: Bare Knuckles

tn_bareknucklestn_Super-Kumite“I’m not interested in champions of the ring. I’m interested in champions of the heart.”

When I found BARE KNUCKLES I wasn’t sure it would even be watchable. It’s recent (2010), I’d never heard of it, it’s not from an established action star or director, and the box mentions serious matters: “Women will go to extreme lengths for those they love, and single mother Samantha Rogers is no exception, being the sole provider for her daughter Mila, a child in need of special care.” That kinda sounds like a recipe for an indie drama about a fighter that’s not really about fights. Then I put it in and the menu and opening credits both of terrible fonts and music, and they put the obviously bogus claim “inspired by a true story” right after the title. This just looks like amateur hour from the get go.

What I’m saying is BARE KNUCKLES was an underdog. A Cinderella story. Cinderella Man, but with a lady… and it makes us all proud. It’s a little ragged and cheesy at times, but it’s a really likable take on alot of the genre tropes, feeling a little different without ever reinventing anything.

sk-finalsJeanette Roxborough plays Samantha, a widowed bar waitress and sometimes stuntwoman (but there’s a strike) who lives with her mother-in-law trying to raise her disabled and deaf daughter (played by her actual daughter Teya Roxborough). One night some obnoxious bar patrons pick a fight with her and she ducks all their swings, catching the attention of Sonny Cool (KARATE KID bad guy Martin Kove), a washed up underground fight promoter who happens to be drunk at the bar and thinks he can see something in her eyes.

Of course she’s hesitant, but eventually agrees to dip her foot into this circuit of “special fights in private, high class locations,” in other words backyard rings and cages where women fight for the amusement and profit of rich gamblers. It pays better than anything else she does, and she’s pretty good at it.

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Roxborough has done a little more stuntwork than acting, and she’s good at both. Although skinny, she seems authentic in her fighting, more in a traditional kickboxing style than kung fu or something. She’s pretty but with an intelligence and sadness in her eyes, kinda like Carrie Anne Moss. So she really communicates alot of soul and inner life when she’s not saying anything, and she does well when she has to break down emotionally. She’s really something. Somebody put her in a real movie, geez.

I’m not all that well versed in the KARATE KID pictures, so I didn’t recognize Kove right away. To me he has kind of a Treat Williams or even later Lorenzo Lamas vibe. I really like him in this, playing a guy who gets by on charm and pity. It seems like he knows everybody and has used up too many favors with all of them. He wears sunglasses during the day and gets pretty dressed up for a guy living in California without a car. Each time he tries to convince somebody to believe in Sam we get a reminder that something terrible happened last time he tried something like this.

Al (Chris Mulkey), the boxing trainer, won’t even let him step inside his backyard ring. Flame (Spice Williams-Crosby, a stuntwoman, bodybuilder, martial artist and wife of Bing Crosby’s grandson), a former champ, is disgusted to even see him. They’re all still broken and guilt-ridden about this past tragedy, but as soon as the yelling stops they start jonesing for it, and they have a convincing the-old-team’s-back-together chemistry.

Sam does well on the circuit, flying through many victories via montage. I thought she was just taking fights, but she later refers to “tournaments.” She’s won multiple tournaments, I guess! But the one she keeps hearing about and wanting to know about is called “The Show.” That’s where the big bucks are, and the big danger. But can she even get in, let alone actually win? And is it ethical for Sonny to let her try, considering his last attempt is still a vegetable?

The energy of the movie really kicks up right before The Show, in a great sequence where the three coaches huddle around Sam…

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…and break down her 15 opponents. This is kind of a tonal shift I believe they call it, where we’re a little less grounded and more in the cartoon or video game world. But I don’t mind. They each have a style or specialty and a colorful nickname. For example there’s Boom Boom (Erica Grace), a powerful boxer who they say is going for a KO with each punch. “They say she’s related to John Henry.” And she has a wrestling-manager type called Scuba (Kristian Bernard).

The Show happens in a fake Scottish castle in the hills of Malibu (a location apparently destroyed in a wildfire a few months after filming). The audience is all champagne-sipping high rollers, and they’re instructed that the final is a black tie event. Even the fighters have to wear gowns for the opening festivities.

Dresses are kind of important in this movie. Most of the fighters have a sort of manly swagger (some of them a little forced), but they don’t seem to have trouble getting dressed up. Sam prefers casual workout clothes and hoodies, but is genuinely moved when her trainers buy her a nice dress as a gift. Toughness is not in opposition to femininity.

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Her training is mostly normal fight workout stuff: heavybags, punched in the stomach, hitting the pads, learning moves, jumping over sticks. Sam works with Flame and it starts to seem like there’s nothing for the men to do, so they spend the training montage restoring an old car together.

still_bareknuckles_dolphinOne thing BARE KNUCKLES gets right that alot of low budget ones like this don’t: varied fight locations. In the tradition of LIONHEART or FIGHTING they try to bring them to different venues each time. So there’s the backyard of a mansion, more of a dirty warehouse setting with a fenced-in cage, a farm with metal rails instead of ropes, and even for The Show there’s an outdoor ring for the early rounds and a different one under a roof for the final bout. And the castle is a funny place for all these rich assholes to be at, it’s very chintzy with its dolphin statues and everything, you don’t know if it’s closer to Scarface’s place or a theme restaurant, and they’re all standing around trying to loo–

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HOLY SHIT LAZAR ROCKWOOD IS IN THIS MOVIE. That was the weird guy I was talking about in FEARLESS TIGER. He played the villain, Saalamar. Here he has a brief appearance as “Mystery Man,” a gambler at The Show who is shown listening to the rules and later stabbing a guy over a bet or something. I knock his movie out of the tournament and he only comes back stronger! I never heard of Lazar Rockwood and then I watched these two movies in a row. Made in different countries, by totally different sets of people, 19 years apart, and there he is. What’s more, it turns out Roxborough was in three other movies with Lazar: PANAMA DEAL, DEATH IN HAVANA and ANTIGONE. Since she was a stunt double for Yancy Butler on Witchblade I’m gonna assume they’re friends from that. Director Eric Etebari was also an actor on Witchblade. Nobody’s gonna believe me but there’s some kind of Witchblade Illuminati running the fighting tournament filmmaking scene.

This is another underground tournament that has a corporate sponsor:

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Hey, rich VIPs who bet millions of dollars on secret full contact women’s fighting: try Body Glove products. It’s like a glove for your whole body instead of just the hand part of the body, or something? I don’t know what it is. Is it wetsuits? I guess some of these gamblers probly do scuba diving.

The rules of the fights are a little vague. Almost all wins are by knockout, declared by the ref without a 10 count, but Sam’s first fight is a knockout by choke hold. I don’t think there are any tapouts, and after that first one nobody takes it to the mat. There’s a big fight over the finals being full contact (Al almost walks out because of what happened to their last fighter, Danielle, four years ago) but it didn’t seem like there were any limitations on the other fights. I thought they said there were no time limits in the final, but then they have rounds.

We do know that it’s 16 fighters, so she has to win 4 matches to come out on top. That would get her $500,000 plus 15% of total bets on the final fight, which should help with her troubles getting proper schooling for Mila.

The fights are a little along the lines of the ones in the Mimi Lesseos movies – professional wrestling style staging but with lots of martial arts kicks. They’re often shot very straight-on and moving a little slow, but of course I like that better than the modern standard of the camera and cuts moving too fast to see anything. When you get to see a full fight, not just highlights in a montage, there is a sports movie type of plotting to them – can she hang in there? There’s a good version of the old RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK joke where an opponent comes in doing all kinds of fancy moves and Bruce Lee battle cries only to be taken out with one punch. This woman goes way over the top with the moves though, it’s more like she’s making an ass of herself than being impressive. I love Sam’s subtle “you gotta be fuckin kidding me” look as she watches her dance around:

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Sonny looks kinda dumbfounded too:

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Sam’s chief competition is “Mayhem” Mona (Bridgett “Babydoll” Riley, a boxing and kickboxing champion, Black Belt Hall of Famer, WMAC Master and stuntwoman for MILLION DOLLAR BABY, SERENITY, WATCHMEN, IRON MAN 2 and many other things). She’s not at all friendly or sportswomanlike, and her manager is the sleazy villain of the piece, Nedish (Louis Mandylor, brother of Costas). In fact, let’s admit it, she seems like a total bitch. But there are a few little signs of human vulnerability. One is a moment where she disrespects Nedish and he yells at her and pushes her head up against a wall. We have every reason to believe she could put a serious assbeating on him (the muy thai expertise claimed on Mandylor’s bio is not shown to be part of this character) but somehow he scares her, she’s helpless against his abuse. For his part, he he hides what he’s doing when Scuba walks by. So somewhere inside he has some shame, he knows he’s a fucking scumbag.

A nicer moment is in the back room before the final fight, Mona is having trouble getting the back of her sports bra hooked, and after a bit Sam comes over and helps her. Mona doesn’t say anything but is obviously surprised. It’s these little unexpected bits that make the movie stand out from others of its type. Another is a scene where Sam sits in the backyard talking with an old lady named Mrs. McIntyre (BLUE VELVET’s Frances Bay in her last film role) about her life.

It seemed to me like some of the big decisions are kind of brushed over. Al is dead set against the full contact fight, and Sonny decides to go along with him, but Sam convinces him that she has to do it, and suddenly Al is standing there ready to keep training. For me it worked, because I ended up liking these characters and their loyalty to each other, so I was won over by these emotional moments. But I admit some of the storytelling isn’t quite there.

Director Etebari cameos Sam’s dead husband in some quick flashbacks. He’s an actor in 2 FAST 2 FURIOUS, THE LINCOLN LAWYER and alot of smaller movies. This is his directorial debut, but he’s done a couple since. He seems like a cheesy loudmouth Hollywood dude on the extras, but I think he’s made a good movie here.

Writer Robert Redlin also did AFTER DARK, MY SWEET from the Jim Thompson novel.


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.
This entry was posted on Monday, August 5th, 2013 at 1:29 am and is filed under Action, Martial Arts, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

20 Responses to “The Super-Kumite finals: Bare Knuckles”

  1. You review made me curious about this film, Mr Vern. And since girlfight movies are so scarse, it’s good to know one is a decent film. I have grew weary of guysfight movies, but girlfright movies are a novelty for me, ence my interest.
    There has been a crop of new stuntwomen who are quite good in selling themselves as believable fighters, a good nice change from the past when they were scarse to say the least.

  2. Lazar Rockwood turned into Anne Ramsey so gradually I didn’t even notice it.

    This sounds like quite a discovery, Vern. Just the kind of scrappy little underdog we’d all like to see take home the trophy. (There is a Super Kumite trophy, right?) It’s got the heart of a lion, the eye of the tiger, possibly the spleen of a dragon, I don’t know. Sight unseen I’m pulling for this one.

    Or am I just being racist to automatically root for the whitebread competitor rather than The Men From Hong Long, the native practitioners and originators of the art form? Is this a subliminal Frank Dux/Tom Cruise in THE LAST SAMURAI/Eminem in real life type situation where I’m conditioned to see the caucasian as the hero and all minorities as secondary characters or villains?

  3. Mouth is still feeling good about my heroic & in my opinion accurate prediction, in which I confidently expressed support for Team The Women as both the underdogs & the favorites for THE SUPER-KUMITE.

    But goddammit:

    The gods will make me wait one more day to catch BARE KNUCKLES. This is why we need more local video rental places like in the ’90s. It was a good system back then. I miss the ’90s.

    Oh fuck, THE KUMITE* (2006?) has Gordon Liu in it. That is gonna be a big obstacle to clear for my Team The Women.

    *STAR RUNNER (2003?) is catalogued as a different film by the same director (Daniel Lee) on NetFlix, but it’s the same film as THE KUMITE on IMDB. THE KUMITE is PG-13, while netflix lists STAR RUNNER as NotRated and has a slightly different synopsis making it sound more like a romance story, plus it has a different order of cast leads, mysteriously excising Gordon Liu. STAR RUNNER says it’s 14 minutes shorter, or 10 minutes shorter than the IMDB listing.
    This is all very strange. Might have a Uwe Boll-BLOODRAYNE:THE 3RD REICH/BLUBBERELLA/AUSCHWITZ type situation here.

  4. The original Paul

    August 5th, 2013 at 11:33 am

    “HOLY SHIT LAZAR ROCKWOOD IS IN THIS MOVIE.”

    Vern, I love you. Seriously (or at least platonically). If it were anatomically possible, I’d offer to have your babies.

    Is it possible that perennial underdogs The Women can beat favorites The Men From Hong Kong? It’s possible.

    That’s one heck of a “to watch” list, Mouth. Someone thinks “Spring Breakers” is comedy?

  5. Mouth, “Would You Rather” shouldn’t be at the top of ANYONE’S queue. It’s TURRIBLE.

  6. Argh. My comment got lost before I submitted it.
    OK. Second version of the same comment: Body Glove was at its peak in the late 80s and early 90s. They made neon colored spandex clothing. For an example, look at any video of Living Colour performing Cult of Personality when it was a hit. See the awful clothing worn by lead singer Corey Glover (PLATOON)? That’s Body Glove.

    The fact that they are sponsoring something in 2010 is perhaps the biggest giveaway that this isn’t actually based on that true story.

  7. It feels like if Team the Men from Hong Kong doesn’t come out the clear winner in the tournment, it will maybe have to do with their lineup — I feel sure that Master of the Flying Guilloutine would have been stronger as a third-round contender.

  8. I’m hoping for the rare, elusive Double KO in the final round of THE SUPER-KUMITE.

    Or… While the referee gives each contestant the 10 count, MASTER OF THE FLYING GUILLOTINE sneaks from Team The Men From Hong Kong’s corner, crouches behind the scorers’ table, and uses his special weapon to lunge for the trophy.

    Jalal Mehri, the only audience member not mesmerized by the real-life reenactment of the end of ROCKY II before him, spots MotFG trying to abscond with The Precious, then nudges Cat Sassoon to bring the villainy to her attention. She immediately throws off her trainer’s robe and springs toward The Men From Hong Kong’s corner to confront them about their teammate trying to jack the trophy, intimidating them by shoving her tan breasts of anti-gravity stone in their faces.

    Just as the count to knockout reaches 6, and STAR RUNNER is coming to his feet, he glimpses his secret crush ANGELFIST’s naked figure and does a double take; his legs give out again and he tumbles back to the mat at the count of 8.

    Meanwhile, BARE KNUCKLES, through a pulpified face & swollen eyeslits, somehow discerns in the distance the hazy outline of a trophy she worked so hard to win, the representation of the money prize this single mother so desperately needs to feed little Special Needs Mila. Vern’s special engraved championship message seems to be floating upward in a halting pattern peppered with red sprayage. A few clarifying blinks and the spray on her neck from her corner’s encouraging team’s spittle while they urge her to her feet causes her mind to regain itself. As she presses her Bare Knuckles to the mat to push herself up at the count of 6, she sees that the trophy is no floating dream-vision; rather, it is being rushed up the arena’s stairway aisle by a man who leaves behind him a trail of decapitated heads, his path littered with the gushing open necks of various would-be human blockades to his escape to the outside world with his stolen prize.

    The referee counts 7… the scorekeepers indicate to her that she must stay in the ring until the full count of 10 while STAR RUNNER is down, or else she’ll be disqualified… the ref counts 8… BARE KNUCKLES sees MASTER OF THE FLYING GUILLOTINE’s chain snap above the top row of now-empty seats… the ref counts 9… MotFG looks back toward the ring, his snarling face framed by torches in the sand, the flickering flames reflected in the trophy he illegally holds in his left hand while curling his right around his reddened specialty weapon… as the ref counts 10, BARE KNUCKLES jump kicks her way onto the scorers’ table. They cower as she catapults herself into the trail of MotFG, rushing upstairs while gingerly sidestepping the many loose severed heads & pools of blood.

    She reaches the door where MotFG escaped just seconds ago. She opens the door. Her teammates, now cognizant that bickering with the other cornermen/contestants of The Men From Hong Kong is pointless, gaze toward her backlit silhouette. BARE KNUCKLES looks left & right, with no sign of MotFG. She turns & slow-walks back toward the octagon.

    Chaos & confusion as we all realize the true champion has failed to attain the championship trophy. “It’s okay. I’m not interested in champions of the ring. I’m interested in champions of the heart,” says BARE KNUCKLES with a sigh. “We don’t need a trophy to know who really won here.”

    “Yeah, that’s right,” says PUSHED TO THE LIMIT. Cat Sassoon smiles and reaches for her robe.

    EXTREME CHALLENGE lowers his head in shame. “No. This can not stand. Our brother has dishonored this SUPER-KUMITE. He has broken our code. We will restore the trophy to its perch and present it to the true champions, The Women. We will hunt MASTER OF FLYING GUILLOTINE. We disavow our blood promises we made as boys while doing 2-fingered push-ups and twirling on vertical bamboo shafts over fire pits.”

    “Sounds like we all want the same thing, then,” says The Women. Cat Sassoon climbs in the ring to bring STAR RUNNER to consciousness; for comic relief he awakes but passes out one more time real quick when he sees her unreal chestal area. Everyone laughs while she finally puts her clothes back on.

    The scorekeepers suddenly reappear, along with the shadowy underground corporate master of ceremonies who semi-kidnapped & forced half the contestants to fight. “I declare this SUPER-KUMITE null & void. You’re all disqualified! You get nothing. You broke the rules! Look at all these dead people in the audience. How am I supposed to make money off you useless, stupid meatheads! And you got my suit dirty!” A scorekeeper lackey goes to wipe clean his employer’s decadently expensive shoes. STAR RUNNER descends from the ring and drop kicks the rich asshole that no one likes.

    Team The Women and the remaining members of Team The Men From Hong Kong line up and integrate, shoulder to shoulder.

    BARE KNUCKLES strikes a pose and steps forward. They all walk toward the outside world to find & kill THE MAN FROM HONG KONG, knowing that he is the greatest individual fighter the VERN PRESENTS: THE SUPER-KUMITE! has ever known, but that he is only a pretender, not a team player anyway, not an official champion.

    They walk toward the camera in slow motion.

    Freeze frame. To be continued in… THE SUPER-KUMITE 2: RETURN TO SUPER-KUMITE.

  9. The original Paul

    August 5th, 2013 at 1:22 pm

    Holy SHIT. **Claps enthusiastically.**

  10. The original Paul

    August 5th, 2013 at 1:26 pm

    But you can’t leave it on a cliffhanger like that! I want to know what happens! What is this, a bad videogame?

  11. No closure, Paul. Stay through the credits and you might get a “tag” or “stinger” or “bonus scene,” something to loosen your wallet for the next installment in 8 months. That’s what movies do these days.

  12. Martin Kove keeps popping up in these martial arts mentor roles, including in another competition entry, SHOOTFIGHTER. He’s kept that Cobra-Kai ball rolling for quite some time. With all the disqualifications on technical grounds, it’s too bad SHOOTFIGHTER got eliminated since it’s probably one of the most Kumite-focused of all the films in the competition.

  13. In the sequel, SUPER KUMITE 2: KUMORTAL KUMOMBAT, MotFG is running his own tournament on top of a matte painting mountain with the fate of the world in the balance. Teams The Women and The Men From Hong Kong must defeat the forces of evil/1998 caliber CGI to ensure that darkness does not overrun the earth.

    At the end, MofFG is captured and sent to jail, where, in SUPER KUMITE 3: KUMITENTIARY 2, he becomes the underdog hero who must regain his honor by competing in an underground prison fighting tournament and defeating an evil bigger prick than himself: the guy who used to come up with generic VHS titles for Hong Kong movies for the Weinsteins before he went to jail for that and other crimes against humanity.

    This character then returns in the next sequel, known overseas as SUPER KUMITE IV: GOLDEN TIGERFIST IN THE EYE OF THE EAGLESNAKE but released domestically as THE PUNCHER.

    There is then a spinoff series of SUPER KUMITE COP movies but nobody likes those very much.

  14. These people also made a movie called ANTIGONE?

  15. In other news, Mouth graciously provides his own badass juxtaposition with his selection of two discs of the 1972 BBC production of Jane Austen’s EMMA. The next time he is forced to barehandedly strangle a sentry he unexpectedly comes upon in a stairwell, he can whisper, whilst easing the incapacitated enemy silently to the floor, “Surprises are foolish things. The pleasure is not enhanced, and the inconvenience is often considerable.”

  16. The original Paul

    August 6th, 2013 at 12:01 pm

    Majestyk: “KUMORTAL KUMOMBAT”? Shouldn’t it be Kuwombat?

    Anyway, thanks for clearing that up.

  17. The original Paul

    August 6th, 2013 at 12:21 pm

    And on a very slightly related subject, a few people here have recently made less-than-complimentary remarks about the quality of the “Mortal Kombat” TV shows, thereby forcing me to go back to rewatch the great “Mortal Kombat: Conquest” TV show for the first time since it came out fifteen years ago. Its appeal is exactly what I remember it being (boobs), but the fight scenes have a certain retro charm to them. There’s way too many cuts in the editing (I’m a third of the way through the series and I’ve yet to be convinced that any of the lead actors can throw a punch, let alone hold their own in a fight), but I kinda miss the whole Capoeira-knockoff fighting style, which I like to call “cartwheel-fu”. Lots of people using ridiculous cartwheel kicks and jumping over each others’ heads for no good reason. It’s bizarre, absurd, and still a hundred times more entertaining than any of the shitty bloodless slow-ass wire-fu that “The Matrix: Reloaded” bored me with. (Hey, I have SOME standards.)

    Anyway: “Mortal Kombat: Conquest”. Clearly did not have enough of a budget to invest in even half-realistic-looking CGI (this is a good thing) or more than one sensible outfit’s worth of dressmaking material per every six female cast members (this is a VERY good thing). Did, on the other hand, have a young Kristanna Loken, and possibly the largest ratio of clearly-caucasian-actors-playing-Asians to actual Asians that I’ve seen in any form of media ever.

    Plus it has scantily-clad lesbian fortune-telling ninjas.

  18. Damn, how does Martin Kove look almost exactly the same as he did thirty years ago?

  19. Guys, you’ve got to check out the latest WTF with Marc Maron. Bill Hadder’s on this week, and he has a killer story about when he was a PA and had to drive around Martin Kove for a film shoot. Truly, it’s a milkshake story that’s up there with AND THERE WILL BE BLOOD.

  20. I think BARE KNUCKLES is a good step forward with respect to previous movies featuring female fights. The fighting scenes looked credible enough for me, and I like the fact that the fights were not “to the death”, an often abused macabre setting. Also the idea of having the fights take place in a high-end stage, with the fighters dressed in trendy clothes, looked original to me. I would have preferred, though, the fighters to be barefoot during their fights, as this would be more realistic for a full contact fight. I also regret that the Romanian fighter (Alina Andrei) did not get more space in the plot. For example, I would have liked her to give the main character a tougher fight, instead of getting knocked out with a single shot.

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