Writer/director/actor/martial artist Jino Kang’s first film BLADE WARRIOR had a bit of an EL MARIACHI passionate-no-budget-debut energy to it. It was shot over a few years and bridged the independent film world’s switch from film to digital. (I like the grainy film look better, but of course we’re not gonna see much of that anymore.)
His second film FIST 2 FIST (the distributor changed it from his preferred title HAND 2 HAND, which was meant to have a double meaning) was released a decade later, in 2011. It looks a little more slick and professional and normal, but he still feels like an underdog filmmaker, and with age he’s become an even more interesting leading man.
There’s little flash or ego to Kang’s persona playing Ken, a former criminal turned martial arts instructor for at risk youth. He’s the serious, responsible, grownup badass, the positive role model of asskicking.
There are two fights in the first 12 minutes of the movie. The first one is going into a chop shop to help his friend get his little brother out of a bad scene. The second is against a street kid named Jim (Peter Rallojay Woodrow) who tries to mug him. After Ken subdues the kid he gives him his business card and invites him for “three hots and a cot” at the youth community center he runs.
Ken reminds me slightly of Takeshi Kitano in that he doesn’t smile much or betray his emotions. He mostly looks disappoimted that you’re gonna make him kick your ass even though he doesn’t like doing that kind of stuff. I like this look he gives his friend’s little brother when the chop shop boss says “You wanted him? Prove yourself, get in there,” and pushes him in for a fight:
It’s like, “Really? You sure you want to do this? I don’t recommend it.” Like a more world-weary version of Bruce Lee’s “don’t do it” headshake to Chuck Norris before he kills him in WAY OF THE DRAGON. But instead of snapping his neck he puts the kid in a chokehold, makes him look at his brother and convinces him to switch sides.
At home, Ken has some real problems. #1, financial troubles threaten to close the community center. #2, Tokyo Joe (Bill Duff, host of Human Weapon on the History Channel), who is most likely not from Tokyo, is about to get out of prison (where he seems to have been running things from his storage room office) five years early. He blames his former boss Ken (who he knows as Machine Gun Kenny) for turning him in and stealing his girlfriend. But he’s not trying to kill him for revenge. He just wants Ken and his students to fight in a battle royale.
Those students include the street kid Jim/Jimbo, who does decide to come in, mop some floors and learn hapkido. He doesn’t know that Ken invited him there out of guilt – it seems Ken and Tokyo Joe were both there when his parents were murdered. But Jim is very dedicated to learning to fight, so Ken brings him to a series of legendary teachers including “Judo” Gene LeBell in a cameo.
Meanwhile, Ken’s wife (Melissa Tan) tries to stop him from fighting, even tries going to talk to Joe about it, but gets abducted as leverage to force Ken’s kids to throw their fights.
While the tournament takes place – normal cage fights in a reality-based, MMA style – Ken fights his way through a series of henchmen in hallways and boiler rooms backstage. These are usually one-on-one fights, filmed simply, no dumb camera or editing shit getting in the way of people being knocked around and thrown into furniture.
A subplot has set up the new guy, Speed (Lorinzo McCoy, BALLBUSTERS), who fights Ken using a double ENTER THE DRAGON homage. I can’t approve of his Bruce Lee type squeal (only Bruce and arguably Jim Kelly can do that without it seeming like a joke), but I enjoy his Han-esque three-bladed claw. Seems presumptuous for a newbie to use such a flash weapon, but that fits the character.
Most of the henchmen are more like mafia thugs than martial artists, but they’re pretty colorful characters. I like the part where Rocky (Tim Lajcik, COLD IN JULY) throws a dart in a guy’s head and explains that he has nerve damage and won’t notice. Tokyo Joe’s right hand man Bruno (James Hiser, INTERVIEW WITH THE ASSASSIN) is more of a whiner than a fighter, but he is correct to make fun of his boss for going to a psychic straight out of prison, especially since he says the place smells like cat pee.
Of course this is all leading to a duel between Ken and Joe. They fight with fists and feet for a while, then Joe gets out knives for each of them – at which point they immediately slash/stab each other, ending the fight. One of them lives. Spoiler.
I enjoyed this one. Keep an eye out for Jino Kang’s homegrown movies with alot of heart.
Full disclosure: As I mentioned in the BLADE WARRIOR review, I got to meet Jino Kang at the book signing for my friend david j. moore’s book The Good, the Tough and the Deadly. I tried to write this review free of influence from him being a cool guy, but I ‘m mentioning it here so you can judge if I’m full of shit or not.