RING OF STEEL is a classical underground fighting circuit movie from 1994, and it has many familiar elements: a hero who needs work after accidentally killing an opponent in a legitimate match, a mysterious, clearly untrustworthy stranger who leads him into the temptation of a high stakes fight club, rich people betting, the slow roll-out of death matches after the hero is already in too deep, a jealous and possessive-of-women rival, police snooping around, a girlfriend who ends up being used as collateral to make him fight the big match, all that type of stuff. But it has one unique element that gives the whole enterprise a novel flavor and personality: the fights are sword fights.
The hero is a disgraced fencing champion. Given a choice of weapons, he picks some kind of 17th century musketeer deal to go up against knights and samurai and shit. And some of the score by Jeff Beal (IN THE REALMS OF THE UNREAL, BLACKFISH, WEINER, HE WAS A QUIET MAN) would work for a Roger Corman sword and sorcery movie.
I love this because fencers, at least as depicted here, aren’t macho warriors. They’ve dedicated their lives to a sport that most people forget exists unless they happen to see it for a minute during the summer Olympics. They’re nerds. Our hero Alex (Robert Chapin, DRAGON FURY I-II) is tall, lanky, mulleted, has kind of a dorky sense of humor. He meets Elena (Darlene Vogel, BACK TO THE FUTURE II, SKI SCHOOL, ANGEL 4: UNDERCOVER) at a fencing event and talks about the sport with her. Other than their modern quickness to consecrate the relationship on the couch, they are a traditionally wholesome and square couple. Lovably so.
In fact, the first time Alex watches one of the underground matches he causes the entire packed arena to pause and give him a “what the fuck?” look because he screamed “NOOO!!!” because he thought someone was about to be hurt. (“You’re the loud-mouthed asshole that interrupted my show,” says bad guy Jack [Gary Kasper, TOUGH AND DEADLY, CODE OF HONOR] when they’re introduced backstage.)
I guess Alex has a slight dark side though. Elena immediately feels uncomfortable and wants to get away from these sleazy people, but Alex gets boyishly excited about the opportunity to fight against armored guys in a pit with metal walls. So she stays with him, first as support, then as a hostage.
Meanwhile, he makes a show-you-the-ropes friend named Brian (Jim Pirri, WELCOME HOME ROXY CARMICHAEL), who’s supposed to be a great wiseass. He’s the kind of guy who talks in fake accents for a cheap laugh, and who ruins a perfectly okay dig about “moonlighting at Chippendales” by changing it to “Strippendales.” He’s extremely, smirkingly proud of the childish taunts he comes up with during fights and is the mastermind of a prank I really don’t get where he gets Alex to challenge Jack to a duel, but then sends a chicken to the ring instead. Later Brian fights Jack and keeps making chicken noises, like a little kid bully who hasn’t learned the word “pussy” yet. I really don’t understand how he justifies calling the guy who shows up for the match the chicken. Seems poorly thought out.
One reason Jack hates Alex is kind of a schoolyard type deal where he likes a girl but the girl seems to like Alex so he gets mad. The girl is Tanya (super model Carol Alt), an employee of the Ring who seems to be trying to seduce Alex for evil purposes but turns out to just be hot I guess. She seems to be pretty nice in the end.
The ringleader of the Ring of Steel is Joe Don Baker (WALKING TALL, MUD) wearing a black overcoat and hat with a sword cane that you see before you see his face when he’s in attendance at Alex’s life-altering accident match, as if supernaturally aware of the recruiting opportunity. He’s a destiny-obsessed, Luciferian figure who seems to have been following Alex forever, knows all about him (he tells him “Bring your girlfriend, Elena” when inviting him to the Ring after saving him from muggers in a dark alley) and respects him enough to sort of be honorable to him, but not quite.
In one scene, Alex and Elena are walking home at night and joking around lovingly, he pretends to be a pirate, picks her up and spins her around, she laughs, etc. And the camera pans across to the Baker character’s cane and reveals him standing there in the shadows, watching them, smiling, as if their cute date is falling right into his scheme. That’s the kind of hands-on, in my opinion micro-managing grand manipulator he is. He kept reminding me of the “Man in Black” who busts Michael Meyers out of jail in HALLOWEEN 5, so I was excited that that was what they call him on the end credits. Same character, in my opinion.
Elena gets sidelined for a while. Just when I was starting to get mad that she was introduced as a fencer but only used as girlfriend/hostage, she escapes captivity, gets a sword, and intervenes (briefly) in the final Ring of Steel duel. I mean, she still ends up in an abandoned factory dangling from a catwalk over some fire, but I’m glad they let her at least swash one buckle.
And it’s cool that Alex stays square and not newly cynical. After winning a duel on top of a burning building he literally turns his back on violence and, though he doesn’t end up with a new fight brother out of it, is genuinely not responsible for killing the bad guy.
There’s a weirdly serious-and-jokey-at-the-same-time scene where a guy (Travis McKenna, “Fat Clown” from BATMAN RETURNS) shows up to audition for the Ring thinking it’s pretend. He gets humiliated and threatens to call the cops, so they kill him. He’s a fat D&D nerd stereotype who calls his sword “Stormbringer” and introduces himself as “Trebor, of the clan of Ravenhurst, from the shire of Pasadena, a chaotic evil barbarian.”
The scene seems ahead of it’s time, actually. I don’t think I ever heard of LARPing until many years after this. And it jumps from cartoony nerd-bashing to a pretty authentic petulant arrogance when Trebor foolishly threatens to tattle.
According to his self-written IMDb bio, Chapin – who was at the Good, the Tough and the Deadly book signing at Dark Delicacies last summer and seemed like a nice, down to earth guy – trained in stage combat with a The Royal Chessmen, “a group that performed living chessgames at local renaissance fairs,” and other dinner theater or amusement park troupes. Yeah, it makes sense that somebody like that would be ahead of the curve in dealing with LARPers and other oddballs of swordcraft. It also says his parents were puppeteers. That’s the type of guy we’re dealing with here.
“Ring of Steel” was the name of a troupe he joined “at a local theme park called Pirates,” and I guess their work must’ve inspired this movie that he co-wrote with director David Frost (production manager of PERFECT TARGET). Since this debut the only other thing he directed was three episodes of Masked Rider in 1995. Chapin has gone on to be in other movies, but he also studied computers and became a visual effects artist, working on ROBOCOP 3, THE BIG LEBOWSKI, CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON, THE CHRONICLES OF RIDDICK, TOKYO DRIFT, THE FORCE AWAKENS and more.
RING OF STEEL is the kind of thing I’m always looking for with these ’90s low budget western martial arts movies: a sincere retelling of a classic action movie story structure that adds a little of its own flavor and personality. In this case Chapin’s persona and fighting specialty give the formula a more unique spin than most. I’m glad these theme park entertainers took it upon themselves to be action stars.
Note: I’m unclear on which formats this is released on. In the U.S. it’s only on VHS, so I ordered an import DVD online. The cover they sent me looks like a bootleg, but the disc itself looks legit and, though cropped, is not transferred from VHS.