“Are you mental, brov? She just bashed a man’s skull in. It’s a fuckin devil woman, brov! I don’t want none of it!”
You’ve seen me rave about the martial artist Amy Johnston, her movie LADY BLOODFIGHT, and her supporting role in ACCIDENT MAN. This is her other starring vehicle which
going by the order of the IMDb listings, she must’ve filmed shortly before was filmed a while after LADY BLOODFIGHT (both have a 2016 release date). There are many ways it’s not as good as the other movie, which I’ll get into, but I think I loved it almost as much. It has tons of DTV personality and probly the best showcase of Johnston’s acting skills so far.
The DVD I bought calls it FEMALE FIGHT SQUAD, but it seems to have started life as FEMALE FIGHT CLUB. I’m guessing they didn’t want people to go in expecting a FIGHT CLUB remake with Kristen Wiig as Narrator and Melissa McCarthy as Tyler Durden. They’d be disappointed.
The director is Miguel Ferrer (no relation), who has otherwise just done a bunch of shorts. He co-wrote it with Anastazja Davis (DISCONNECTED).
Johnston plays Becca, who’s hit a rough stretch of road. On one hand her dad is Dolph Lundgren – that’s awesome. On the other hand he’s in prison for killing some dudes. We know she’s tough because of a flash-forward to “the final round of the bi-annual free-fighting championships,” where she’s introduced as “a myth, an urban legend, right here before your very own eyes: Bex ‘The Beast’ Holt!” But also we know she’s sweet, because she works at a dog shelter, saving money for her dream of moving to Africa and working for some kind of wildlife preserve there (see: theory of badass juxtaposition).
Then one day her sister Kate (Cortney Palm, SUSHI GIRL, SILENT NIGHT, ZOMBEAVERS) shows up. She’s a hundred grand in debt to dangerous people and needs Becca’s help training a team for a fighting tournament. Becca doesn’t want to do it, but dad asks her to on the phone, and as I think I mentioned, he’s Dolph Lundgren.
So Becca returns home to Las Vegas, where everybody wonders where the fuck she’s been all these years. There’s a boyfriend she abandoned, Potter (Sean Faris, NEVER BACK DOWN, FREERUNNER), who’s now a cop. Also there’s her dad’s best friend Zeke (ex-Hell’s Angel Chuck Zito, NOWHERE TO RUN, 13, HOMEFRONT, THE MARTIAL ARTS KID), who still runs the Holt family kickboxing gym and lets her stay there after he catches her sleeping in her car. He adds a really warm uncle presence to the movie, a weathered, out-of-breath, heavily-Bronx-accented, overwhelmingly masculine dude who kinda sees her as his little princess but also knows how tough and stubborn she is and doesn’t try to interfere.
Kate introduces her to the rest of her team, Lisa Nguyen (Levy Tran, “Race Starter,” FURIOUS SEVEN), Gaby (Jeanette Samano, YOUR MOVE) and Winter (Folake Olowofoyeku, DEATH RACE 2050). I like Winter the best because she introduces herself by saying “‘Cause I knock bitches out cold!” and in one scene she jams on an electric guitar as accompaniment for some sparring. Here’s where Johnston gets to do the reverse of the role that introduced her to me: she’s the teacher, not the student. She overcomes their skepticism as, one by one, they fail to best her in the ring, preaches fighting philosophies to them, teaches them about their weaknesses. Some pretty good training business, preparing them for their fights not in a ring but in “The Pit,” a flat floor in a back room of an import-export warehouse, a place where we’re told there are also dog and cock fights.
The boss of the place, the guy Kate owes money to, is sleazy ass Landon Jones (Rey Goyos, “Cue Card Holder [uncredited],” J. EDGAR). “Business man, ruthless, one of those not-to-be-fucked-with kinda guys,” Kate says. He’s not a fighter but it’s a memorably detestable performance, the kind of arrogant bully who tries to act like he’s charming when he really knows that you know he’s really threatening you.
By the way, this is how we know the Millennials are running the world now, when our villains have haircuts and beards like this:
He’s like Christophe Waltz cosplaying as Max Landis.
Like LADY BLOODFIGHT, this is a movie that exploits gender in the title but doesn’t make a big deal of it in the actual movie. It just happens that this is an all-woman fighting league. They’re all badasses so it speaks for itself, nobody has to say anything about it. When situations come up where she has to fight men it doesn’t seem any different from when she fights women. We know she can handle herself.
That’s not to say gender is irrelevant to the movie, because I can think of several examples of male oppression in her life. First of all, this has another scene early on where some macho assholes try to push women around and end up getting totally Amy Johstoned for it. Always good to have some of that. More significantly, everything going on (Becca leaving, her dad being in jail, her strained relationship with Kate) turns out to stem from an assault that happened five years ago, which I think we can assume was a sexual assault. And the fighting circuit is run by this man, Landon. His male employees all leer at Becca when she first shows up, though luckily they never harass her. (Another fighter breaks the wrist of a guy who tries to cop a feel.) Landon dominates them with violence and threats and (worst of all) is not established to have any fighting skills but gets the honor of the final showdown with Becca. (SPOILER: Not that he lasts long. Penis privilege doesn’t help him there.)
I mentioned that I liked LADY BLOODFIGHT better. It had better production value, more elaborate and varied choreography, more developed supporting characters, and layers of philosophy and spirituality that I really appreciated. But few movies live up to that, and this one’s better than most.
If you’re watching them in backwards order like me I’d say your most likely area of disappointment is in the fight scenes. Though there are some good fighters here, lots of head-to-toe shots of kicking, and opportunities for her to beat up deserving assholes outside of competition, we’ve seen Johnston do so much more that this seems kinda minimalistic in comparison.
But she’s also great in this, making me really care about her character, and believe her range from sweetheart to kind-of-a-psycho. There are some good twists that I didn’t see coming. And it’s a type of movie I cherish: the kind that follows tried and true exploitation formulas, but given life by little moments or scenes that add personality or humanity that you never would’ve seen coming. Two examples:
1. When Becca comes home with Kate she finds that Kate has a daughter (Lexy Kolker). She’s introduced to the babysitter and to little Lily and it’s explicit that this is their first time meeting, but she also plays the entire scene like she had no idea that her sister even had a daughter, that she had a niece. Yet neither of them ever say that out loud. The scene is also a breakthrough in the sisterly relationship because it shows Becca the very legitimate reason why Kate has gotten into this debt and again Johnston is able to play this entirely with her facial reactions, not having to turn her thoughts into words.
(An ugly question though: when Lily says she’s five years old is that supposed to mean she was conceived by rape? Oh, man.)
2. Becca and Landon first come face to face while both are browsing in the library. They have one of those creepy loaded conversations where they pretend to be nice normal people but there’s a sense of some implied threat underneath. In this scene we learn that our villain says that he loves to build birdhouses. In another scene we see that it’s true, he has them hanging up all over his warehouse and his office. Also he likes to menacingly eat ice cream bars that he keeps in a freezer full of body parts. It’s obviously a big show to scare people by revealing that he’s a murderer, but then he goes through with eating the ice cream while still talking threateningly to them.
And there are little intentionally unexplained things. When Becca first comes back to Vegas her sister is in jail. We don’t have to find out why, she just gets into some shit, like Becca does. Also, what’s with the dramatic moment when Becca looks meaningfully at a dog tag with the name Jose Corzo on it? I assume it’s a husband or boyfriend who died in combat, but if so that happened since she’s been in L.A., and isn’t referred to again. I like it when a DTV movie assumes its audience has an imagination. Just ’cause we like seeing her kick people in the face doesn’t mean we need to be coddled.
One thing LADY BLOODFIGHT did not have: Dolph. That’s obviously a plus for this one. It’s not a very big part for him, and he’s barely on screen with Johnston. But I can imagine the version where her dad is just some dude, and this version is 100 times better than that version. Lundgren’s strong presence adds a center of gravity to the movie, and they do manage to give him a fun fight scene and a couple funny lines, one of them involving everyone’s favorite bit of trivia about real-life Dolph. Not that he used to date Grace Jones – the other one. Also if you pay attention there are little touches of things we can infer that Becca learned from her dad (HINT: the way she kills the bad guy).
In fact, that could end up being a theme in Johnston’s movies. So far, both of her starring vehicles give her a father who taught her to fight, who she’s tragically separated from, but continues to think about and be influenced by. In both she has love-hate relationships with her remaining female family members, and is in trouble at work for beating up dudes, which gives her an opening to leave town and do something drastic involving a dangerous underground fighting tournament. And she earns our respect by being very self-reliant and able to live in rough conditions without complaint. In this one there’s the added bonus of her being sort of a legendary figure who doesn’t confirm or deny when people tell her stories they heard about crazy fights she got into. I love this type of character and it’s even cooler when it’s a woman, because that’s so rare. I would be down for another Bex “The Beast” Holt adventure with her and her dad calling in the Female Fight Squad to help stop poachers in Africa.
FEMALE FIGHT SQUAD is more evidence that Johnston is poised to be one of our great action stars. I couldn’t be more on board.
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.