Round 2, Bout 2, Red Fist Club vs. The Men From Hong Kong
When I started The Super-Kumite I was alot greener than I realized, a soft-handed hayseed fresh off the turnip truck, walking through the streets of Manila wearing my Hard Rock Cafe t-shirt, just askin to get my bag stolen. It was naive, but I assumed at least this BLOODFIST series, which always impressed me by having 8 installments on the shelf, was gonna stick with being about fighting tournaments. They have this whole mythology of the Red Fist Club and their Ta-Chang tournament, they have a star who was a real life kickboxing champion, of course they’re gonna keep exploring that, is what I figured. But that’s not how it works in the real world.
BLOODFIST 2 (which I will review separately) continues the story of Jake and his treacherous mentor (or actually the same guy playing basically the same character but with a different name because I think maybe he died at the end of part 1), and it has a great premise where the best fighters of various styles are tricked into coming to Manila, then abducted and forced to fight on an exotic private island. It should be a tournament – his own reworking of the Ta-Chang – but instead it’s just gladiator-style matches. Fun movie, but not eligible for The Super-Kumite. And from what I’ve read it looks like none of the other BLOODFISTs have tournaments until the last one, the Dragon-less BLOODFIST 2050. So that’ll be the round 3 movie if we get that far. In searching for a round 2 substitute I found out that in 1993 director Rick Jacobson (BLOODFIST VI and VIII) directed two different BLOODFIST rehashes (both using basically the same script?). I ordered the one starring Jerry Trimble (FULL CONTACT) but it hasn’t shown up yet, and I was able to rent the other one, DRAGON FIRE.
Alot of times when a movie is similar to another one somebody will call it a “scene-by-scene” rip-off or remake, but usually that’s not literally true. This one, although not clearly credited as a remake (just “story by Robert King”) is much more faithful than most remakes. It takes a whole lot from BLOODFIST: Cocky fighter wins underground fighting tournament (in Los Angeles 2032 instead of present day Manila), killing his opponent. Afterwards, stumbling around by himself drunk, he gets attacked and killed by a masked fighter. A drunk homeless guy is the only witness, and he steals an article of the dead man’s clothing (leather jacket instead of hat). We skip BLOODFIST’s background on the dead guy’s brother (“I fooled around at the Academy” is how he explains his fighting skills) but his name is Laker Powers, played by first-timer Dominick LaBanca. We skip straight to him arriving in town and getting in a street fight with locals. He’s rescued by a guy named “Slick” (Kisu, RING OF FIRE, SWORN TO JUSTICE), a dork who wears a beret, sunglasses and a trenchcoat with no shirt. Slick replaces Kwong as the mentor character.
Slick brings him to a bar, where the same thing happens with a gambler (Eddie, played by Harold Hazeldine, who brings the Don “The Dragon” legitimacy to the movie ’cause he was in RING OF FIRE, BLACKBELT and OUT FOR BLOOD) starting a fight with him, then revealing that he’s faking it to get out of a hand, splitting his winnings with him and letting him stay at his apartment, where Laker meets his hot sister Marta (Pamela Runo, MUNCHIE).
Instead of being here to claim the body as in BLOODFIST, Laker finds out his brother is dead from Eddie, and decides to enter “the junker fights,” as they call underground fighting, because it’s the future. He sees the homeless guy with his brother’s jacket (at least I think he’s homeless, but he wears a gold dollar sign around his neck) and all he gets out of the guy is that “a snake” killed his brother. It would be funny if he took it literally and started asking around town about a giant snake, but I guess he’s savvy enough to know it means something else. (spoiler: the killer had a snake tattoo on his arm.)
Slick trains him by saying platitudes like “Know your enemy like you know yourself” and “all warfare is based on deception” while he trains on a heavy bag. It’s some of the shittiest training in the Super-Kumite outside of PUSHED TO THE LIMIT’s hide-and-seek montage, but it does make for a cool visual:
Then he has him spar with Eddie, and they don’t take it seriously at first and then go really hard, just like the rooftop scene in BLOODFIST. (But here it’s the same set where the tournament will later take place. There are no rooftops in the future.)
This place is called “The Pit.” There are weird metal decorations including a crazy post-apocalyptic type throne, but also Buddha statues. They don’t ever say the word tournament, so I was worried they would change it to an unstructured fight circuit. Luckily they keep that element of BLOODFIST too. It’s the same deal, four fights in four days, single elimination. This weirdo is in charge:
Not sure what the lens does. He explains, “Let me give a brief description of the rules. THERE ARE NONE!” (Like they used to claim on UFC, even when they kept adding more rules.) Instead of clay tablets he draws a slip of paper from a big glass jug, the names are written on a chalkboard and erased after they lose. There’s no ring, just a flat floor with loose, dirty carpet rolled out on it.
Powers has sex with Eddie’s sister, talks about finding his brother’s killer, etc. There are alot of scenes in a strip club called Trocadero 2000 House of Pleasure (she’s a stripper) which seems to be regular and not futuristic until a later scene where the dancer has bodypaint under black light.
The way the twist is revealed is simplified. Since they skipped the part where he has a self defense school with a partner there’s nobody to show up and recognize Slick as “a gambler from way back.” And they skip the part where Jake was in jail and was poisoned by the mentor. Instead before the final fight Slick tells him that his opponent Ahmed Mustafa (Michael Blanks) is nicknamed “Snake” and killed his brother. Then Marta shows up and reveals that Slick is the guy who killed his brother. Oh my god, “all warfare is based on deception!” It was right beneath our noses!
In this version of the story the guy wanted to get our hero killed in the tournament as revenge for his own brother getting beat too hard in the tournament (the dead brother was known as a total asshole who took the fights too far) but then, like in a rom-com or undercover cop drama, started to like him and thought with his skills he could earn him a bunch of money.
The final extra-tournamental fight is in a cheesily decorated room with a strobe light going, and uses the ol’ “kick a guy against a fuse box and he’ll get electrocuted” trope. Also, right before it fades to black Marta comes in and they kiss, but you can see that their lips don’t really touch! But it’s kind of a cool fight because Slick’s lanky fighting style looks good, and at one point he yells “Extraordinary force!” (a reference to his earlier fortune cookie style training methods). Also I think I kinda like this effect where it looks like it’s whip panning back and forth between two angles of the fight. Hard to explain.
I guess Roger Corman must’ve liked this story to redo it. Although they were already on BLOODFIST IV at this point it was only 4 years later, and already he’s remaking it under an assumed name. They really follow the template, even using the martial-arts-championships-listed-under-the-names-credits (starting with third-billed “Dennis Keiffer, K.I.C.K. U.S. Super Middleweight Kickboxing Champion.”)
Here’s something that’s not in BLOODFIST:
A fuckin space ship! But only at the beginning. And I’m sure taken from some other Roger Corman movie. Instead of being an outsider because he’s an American in Manila, Powers is an “off-worlder.” People call him “Stargaze,” apparently a common slur against these rich boy space colony fuckos.
Future Los Angelenos wear chains, sleeveless vests, studded leather gauntlets, goggles, helmets, military-style hats and coats, Asian-style straw hats, but also regular old jeans and sunglasses. And I think I saw one guy wearing a Nine Inch Nails t-shirt.
One highlight is the friendly old man who assists the scary announcer/referee guy. Here he is having a swell old time kicking off the tournament:
There are other enjoyable bits of weirdness, like when the emcee gets fed up with a douchey talkative guy in the crowd, shoots him and yells “THEN SHUT THE FUCK UP!” Nobody bats an eye. Also there’s a big guy who shows what little effect Powers’ blows have on him by letting out a loud burp.
Maybe they had this in BLOODFIST, I can’t remember, but there’s a good part here where he goes to the fights the first time, and he looks into the crowd and there’s a dramatic zoom-in on one of the fans yelling excitedly. It’s the cop who assured him he was trying to get to the bottom of who killed his brother. And he never says anything, it just visually communicates that the authorities aren’t gonna help him and he’s gonna have to do this on his own. A rare moment of subtlety in this thing.
BLOODFIST had Billy Blanks as one of the fighters, but DRAGON FIRE is totally different because it only has his dress-alike brother Michael Blanks:
Ahmed is the main opponent, so this is not the same character his brother played. He’s a pretty good emotionless Terminator-type villain. In one of his fights a guy attacks him with a billy club but it bends when it hits him. When the guy loses the club Ahmed throws it back to him. When he talks, which isn’t much, his voice is lowered to sound monstrous. His best/stupidest line is when Laker tries to ask him about his brother’s death:
“Know anything about a snake?”
“Yeah. Got one in my pants.”
Ha ha, good one Ahmed. My dead brother loved dick jokes.
His best necklace is the one that says “MB” but don’t worry, I’m sure it doesn’t stand for “Michael Blanks,” because that wouldn’t make sense. Maybe it stands for “major beatdown” or something like that. Or maybe it doesn’t stand for anything, he just likes the look of those letters.
This guy Kisu, who plays Slick, he’s a skinny guy who talks tough and doesn’t do any fighting for most of the movie, so I was surprised by the final fight where he’s obviously a real martial artist. He’s not in alot of movies, but his IMDb bio claims he’s trained since the age of 6, earned the title “Sifu” in Northern Shaolin kung fu, was in special forces, did underground fights… I don’t know. But he’s a martial arts consultant for that cartoon “Avatar: The Last Air Bender.”
Even though they had to’ve put alot of work into these futurstic sets, it all feels ridiculously cheap compared to the shot-on-location BLOODFIST. And for all its devotion to the source material it’s still missing some of the highlights of the original: the concept of how he had to give up fighting because he gave his kidney to his brother, the big ENTER THE DRAGON type compound for him to sneak around and spy on, the gym with all the fighters sparring at the same time so he can hear about their fighting specialties, the many different types of training (replaced by just punching and kicking a heavy bag), the funny slow motion villain reveal yelled from the audience while he’s drugged.
Also, in BLOODFIST the death of his brother sort of represented the death of his dream, since he gave up his kidney and his fighting career for his brother, only to have him snatched away. DRAGON FIRE doesn’t have that dimension. We’re obviously supposed to side with Laker trying to avenge the death of his brother, even though his brother was an asshole who beat the other guy’s brother almost to death. As far as revenge motives go it’s not as bad as the rapist/murderer brother in ONLY GOD FORGIVES, but it’s not a strong one either.
More importantly than any of that, though, DRAGON FIRE is missing Don “The Dragon” Wilson. I like Wilson’s odd balance of nerdiness and badass. He doesn’t carry himself like a tough guy but then when he puts his fists (or feet) up he’s convincing. LaBanca doesn’t have that appeal at all, he has more of a meathead-who-thinks-he’s-awesome vibe, maybe partly due to his unfortunately dated (futuristic) 1993 fashion. He fights okay but not as impressively as Wilson, and he doesn’t make up for it with any acting. Here’s his expression after Ahmed seems to have killed his friend in competition:
I mean, I feel bad saying it, but I just don’t think this guy is cool, and you sort of need to think the main guy in a movie like this is pretty cool. Or if not then kind of appealing in his lack of cool, like early JCVD or the guy in NO RETREAT, NO SURRENDER.
And I don’t know why the fuck it’s called DRAGON FIRE.