Isaac Florentine’s first feature DESERT KICKBOXER is not a remake of KICKBOXER that takes place in a more arid climate. It’s also not DESSERT KICKBOXER. That would be weird, and I’m not sure what it would be about. No, this one is just a story about a kickboxer who lives in the desert. Actually I doubt he even considers himself a kickboxer anymore. In a hazy, dreamlike prologue he kills a man in the ring. If this was KICKBOXER he’d be the bad guy, and his dead opponent’s brother would come after him for revenge. Since it’s not, he feels bad about it and is a loner living in his deceased father’s trailer in the middle of nowhere.
His name is Hawk, and I bet you can guess what that means. Yep, he’s that archetype “The Half Breed,” like Billy Jack, or Elvis in FLAMING STAR, or Bronson in CHINO, or the Daywalker. He has all of the white man’s strengths, none of his weaknesses. But he never quite fits in either world. He’s never fully accepted on the reservation, probly called racist slurs by some white people, impressive to others because of his exotic wisdom. And as far as I know the actor playing him is a white guy. He’s John Haymes Newton, best known for playing Superboy in the late ’80s TV series of the same name.
When we first meet Hawk he’s some sort of deputized border guard badass beating up drug smugglers, but he’s pissed when he finds out it’s just pot they’re smuggling, and tells the sheriff – an old colleague of his dad, of course – that he’s not doing this shit anymore. Pretty progressive.
The guy he really wants to take out is Santos (Paul L. Smith, RED SONJA, Bluto from POPEYE), a cocaine kingpin who you know is big time because he wears a white suit and walks with a cane. The opportunity comes when Hawk reluctantly agrees to go after two of Santos’s employees. He arrests them before realizing it’s a set up, this is actually a whistleblower and her brother that the sheriff and Santos are trying to kill. And then Hawk’s car breaks down in the middle of the desert, so he becomes their guide and protector (and yes, fucks the girl [sex spoiler]).
Somehow I missed at first that the brother is mentally challenged. This is why he gets away with talking to Hawk about all the cool Indian warrior shit he saw on a TV documentary. Clever way to get the exposition out, though in my opinion it is not one of the better acting performances I have seen.
This takes place in the modern world but they’re far enough away from human civilization that it’s basically a western or post-apocalypse type situation. At one point a Christian-preacher-themed outlaw rapist and his gang try to have their way with the lady. I’m unclear why Hawk is gone. Maybe he had to go find a good rock to shit behind, I don’t know. But he is gone until it’s time to come rescue them.
People in this movie keep getting shot and then surviving, most notably Hawk, who crawls away from his exploding trailer in time to go Full Indian, paint a handprint on his chest, do shirtless kung fu practice on a cliff (approved by an actual hawk) and then go rescue her from Santos, mostly using arrows.
Fortunately Santos has a high quality henchman named Bruno (Michael M. Foley, THE DIVINE ENFORCER), a guy that looks like a perfect corporate villain with his suit, smirk and Ken doll hair – he would absolutely fit in at the OCP board room or at Patrick Bateman’s favorite restaurants – but the actor is a real martial artist, so he gets a real fight at the end. His character is a dirty ex-fighter who knows about Hawk’s past, so when (SPOILER) everybody including his boss is dead he’s delighted because it means he gets to put down his gun, take off his jacket and take a shot at the title, as Riggs would say. Smart move – usually the criminal hierarchy determines the order of fights, and the hero takes on the leader last, even if he’s just some kinda chubby dude in a suit with no fighting skills. In this one they have a merit-based fight order.
(That was not the case in Florentine’s disowned [but enjoyed by me] THE SHEPHERD: BORDER PATROL. I wasn’t sure which one was Scott Adkins back then but I was confused why the secondary-but-clearly-superior villain got dispatched first.)
I have to question one decision Hawk makes. The brother is killed and while the girl is kidnapped Hawk gives him an above-the-ground burial on a cliff, “in the traditional resting place of my ancestors.” At the end he shows her and she’s cool with it because “he really liked you.” Man, he lucked out because that is REAL presumptuous to make unusual interment decisions for a dude you just met.
I mean I guess I should look up what the etiquette is on that but in my opinion if you meet a guy the day he dies you don’t do the burial arrangements. It just seems tacky to me. I don’t care how long the day seemed, somebody else must‘ve known him longer.
Florentine came onto the scene with the short FAREWELL, TERMINATOR, which caused Menahem Golan to let him do this, his first full length one. It was made from a script he wrote with Jim Lofti (a producer whose only other writing credit is on a Lou Diamond Phillips/Lochlyn Munro joint called KNIGHT CLUB). Florentine was also the fight choreographer. In an interview with Cinapse, Florentine says that DESERT KICKBOXER is “A cheesy movie shot in 16 days. The budget was $250,000. Then Menahem’s partner really liked the script so they upped it to $318,000! So I was double dipping. Then Power Rangers came along and I was the fight choreographer and second unit director on the first season.”
It’s interesting because so many directors peak early, but it actually took him a while to get to the UNDISPUTED-sequel level most of us discovered him at. I have always believed that all that work on Power Rangers was a big part of that evolution. It’s a crappy show of course, but I believe for him it was a boot camp in choreographing, staging and energetically shooting larger-than-life martial arts sequences on a low budget and short schedule. He did it over and over again and after a while he couldn’t help but know how to make better fight scenes than everybody else. In fact, that writer Malcolm Gladwell is known as a huge Power Rangers nerd who based that book about 10,000 hours of practice on Florentine’s case as well as his own learning to write books by spending 10,000 hours writing erotic Power Rangers fan fiction. I could be remembering that wrong but even if I am mistaken it is for sure a stone cold historical fact.
From that same Cinapse interview: “When I did Power Rangers, the producers there told me ‘Hey, you are directing every day. You have carte blanche. Go experiment. If it doesn’t work, shoot it again tomorrow.’ So I had the opportunity to say ‘I’ll do this in one shot, I’ll do this in split screen.’ Pure cinema. For movie lovers! So I experimented. Then I did a series that was ahead of its time called WMAC Masters. So they wanted their fights to look real. And this is 1994/1995. I said the only way to make it look real is not to cut. Otherwise it looks fake. ”
He had the instincts, so he was off to a good start, but he needed more training. For context, other action movies of 1992 include HARD BOILED, UNDER SIEGE, LETHAL WEAPON 3, UNIVERSAL SOLDIER, RAPID FIRE, POLICE STORY 3… holy shit, I never realized what an important year for action cinema 1992 was. In the DTV arena you also had MISSION OF JUSTICE. Only a liar or crazed Superboy fan would try to convince you that DESERT KICKBOXER comes anywhere near those movies I just listed, let alone Florentine’s best. But it’s a watchable movie that gives a hint of the action chops he’d end up developing over the years.
special thanks to Mr. Majestyk for hooking me up with this one