When people think of the summer of ’89, it’s possible that the first thing that comes to mind is not the movie FIST FIGHTER. And when they think of the movie FIST FIGHTER, it’s possible that the first thing that comes to mind is not I am aware of a movie that exists that’s called FIST FIGHTER. Yes, this is an obscure one. IMDb says it was released on May 12th (the week when Bon Jovi’s “I’ll Be There For You” overtook Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” as the #1 single) and doesn’t list it as a video premiere, but it has no box office data, and it doesn’t register on the Box Office Mojo charts. It has only come out on VHS and laserdisc, and not even Scarecrow Video had it last time I checked. But I bought myself a copy a while back after asking david j. moore the best movies he discovered while working on The Good, the Tough and the Deadly, and fortuitously saved it to review until now.
Our hero is a handsome, muscular man with a full head of salt-and-pepper hair, which I greatly respect. Both times I’ve watched I forgot where I knew this actor from – he’s Jorge Rivero (credited as George Rivero), the star of that Lucio Fulci barbarian movie I liked, CONQUEST. He worked primarily in Mexican films from the ’60s until as recently as 2014, but was also in Howard Hawks’ RIO LOBO with his hero John Wayne, THE LAST HARD MEN with Charlton Heston and James Coburn, and a couple English-language ’90s b-movies like this one. Here his stoicism and dry humor remind me a little of Chuck Norris when he’s playing one of his nicer, less arrogant characters. A big good looking guy who genuinely wants no trouble, wouldn’t try to steal your girl or strut around wearing sunglasses.
In the opening he picks up his paycheck and severance after his last day driving a bulldozer and heads to a rowdy road house where WWF legend “Superstar” Billy Graham is dominating an arm wrestling competition. He looks just like in the ring with his bleached mustache, dangly earrings and tie-dyed muscle shirt, but he’s an asshole and even uses a homophobic slur. Our guy doesn’t like how he treats the guy he beats so he challenges him. I didn’t realize until he took his jacket off how muscular he was, and he’s sporting the black t-shirt and jeans look right before Patrick Swayze did in ROAD HOUSE.
Later, after he’s humiliated a bully and had a beer, he pulls over in his Jeep to take another look at the telegram he received:
“RHINO REINHART – FIST FIGHTER WHO KILLED YOUR FRIEND IN RING TWO YEARS AGO NOW BOXING IN ROSARIO, SANTIAGO NEAR BOLIVIA. THOUGHT YOU MIGHT LIKE TO KNOW.”
I’d missed when he said his name earlier, and I was loving the idea that his name is Rhino Reinhart. But after a drive and bus ride to the town in question it’s clear that Rhino is the opponent, played by Matthias Hues, after NO RETREAT, NO SURRENDER 2 but before I COME IN PEACE. So I was thrilled when our guy signed up for the fighting circuit and had to tell them his name: C.J. Thunderbird.
It follows some of the HARD TIMES underground fighting template, including hooking up with a slimy but lovable trainer. Punchy (Edward Albert, GALAXY OF TERROR, GETTING EVEN, MIMIC 2) seems like some goofy conman when C.J. pranks him by playing along with his gambling scheme without telling him he’s the one fighting. But when he comes back to his trailer he sees his championship belts and learns that he was a boxing champ before losing a leg.
Their agreement is sealed with a PREDATOR style handshake that goes straight into the training montage. Punchy keeps babbling while overseeing techniques including upside down pull-ups, carrying Punchy on his back, pulling a car with Punchy in it, doing pushups with Punchy on his back, doing fifty pullups with his dog in a backpack Yoda style, ducking under a swinging stick, crushing apples in one hand, and the admittedly anti-climactic doing pushups with the dog on his back.
I was holding off on talking about the dog because this is one of the little quirks that makes the movie so lovable. He’s introduced on the construction site at the beginning, following C.J., who keeps seeing him but disregarding him. A doorman at the bar tells the dog “Mm mm. Not a chance, pal,” but he manages to sneak in anyway. Later, when C.J. is driving and notices the dog running behind him he stops. The dog sits on the pavement and they have a staredown until C.J. says “Okay, c’mon,” and he gets in to go to Bolivia with him.
He never names the dog, and when Punchy asks if it’s his dog he says, “He’s his own dog.”
The fights are bare-knuckle brawls, all about giant-looking fists smashing each other like hammers hitting meat. Though I prefer acrobatics, these are effective. The first end credit is for “Fights choreographed by Jimmy Nickerson,” who also plays C.J.’s first opponent, King Bellikanov. He had been stunt coordinator for ROCKY, ROCKY II, RAGING BULL, TOUGH ENOUGH and, uh, MODERN GIRLS, so he earned that acknowledgment.
C.J. gets his championship bout with Rhino and wait a minute, this is much too early for the story to be wrapping up. So when C.J. is clearly dominating and Rhino breaks his hands, suddenly the lights go out and the cops raid the place. That manager of his, Billy Vance (Mike Connors, STAGECOACH) has it all figured out. And before long he’s got C.J. framed, locked up in prison, digging up rocks in the sun. And it’s a particularly savage prison because they have this hairy, roaring beast man (Gus Rethwisch, Buzzsaw from THE RUNNING MAN) who they keep chained up and then unleash in a hay-filled rope cage to go savage on prisoners they don’t like.
There are various prison ordeals. I laughed when he escaped a collapsing mine, smiled as if he had gotten out of prison, only to suddenly have three lassos loop around him. One of those funny shots where the hero can’t see people right in front of him because they’re off camera to us.
Of course he eventually gets to fight The Beast and wins, in part by grabbing The Beast’s dick to escape a bear hug. In the tradition of Mad Max vs. Blaster he takes pity on The Beast and decides not to stomp his head in. Since I’ve seen THE JERICHO MILE, PENITENTIARY, UNDISPUTED II and III, etc. I expected shenanigans from Delgado, (Emiliano Redondo, ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA), the colonel or whatever who runs the prison and promised to release him if he won. But after a beat he leans to the microphone and says, “You are a free man. Free to fulfill your destiny.” And he smiles!
I think he’s genuinely impressed by C.J.’s thunderbird mettle, but I suppose he has an ulterior motive that he can bet on his fights on the outside. He has his soldiers pull guns on Vance’s corrupt cops during the rematch so they’ll have to honor the rules. I feel a little uncomfortable with this because it feels like supporting a military coup, but it’s good that the power of C.J. has managed to re-balance the entire system that Vance corrupted.
I was surprised how much I ended up caring about Punchy, who gets himself brutally beaten by Rhino and is sadly absent from the rematch. But I absolutely love that when C.J. finds him bed-ridden in his trailer he’s laying there with his championship belt on. I think it’s to make himself feel strong, but after what he’s done for C.J. he’s earned the title again. And the great spaghetti western style theme music by Emilio Kauderer (THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES, MISS BALA) definitely enhances that melodrama.
It’s disappointing and seems out of character for the movie that (SPOILER) the bad guys shoot the dog. We don’t see a body, so I thought he managed to escape, but we never get the expected reunion at the end. I suppose we should respect that because “He’s his own dog” he was participating in these events of his own accord and surely accepts the consequences of his decisions. But in a just universe he would’ve been waiting outside the prison like Elwood Blues when C.J. got out.
Otherwise this is a satisfying take on traditional material. It’s so casual about its weirdness (there’s a feral giant with fur glued all over him and it’s only a small detour, not the main premise!) that it can almost be mistaken for generic. But I really dug its whole vibe, especially on the second viewing.
This was the last film for director Frank Zuñiga, a veteran of live action Disney movies including THE FLIGHT OF THE GREY WOLF, BARRY OF THE GREAT ST. BERNARD, THE TRACK OF THE AFRICAN BONGO and THE FURTHER ADVENTURES OF THE WILDERNESS FAMILY. He got his start as set designer and assistant director on Francis Ford Coppola’s TONIGHT FOR SURE. His first movie as director was co-directed by Roy E. Disney. His only non-Disney movies are HEARTBREAKER (1983), THE GOLDEN SEAL (1983) and STRANGE COMPANIONS (1983), and HEARTBREAKER is his only movie besides this one that’s not about animals. So the dog makes alot of sense.
I would love to have seen more C.J. Thunderbird adventures, and IMDb does have a listing for a FIST FIGHTER 2 in 1993. It has Rivero, Hues and Albert all returning, but there’s no cover art or plot information, and I’ve found no evidence of it existing on video. If it’s real, it’s apparently the directorial debut of b-action star Frank Zagarino (BARBARIAN QUEEN, STRIKER, AIRBOSS I-IV, Dolph’s workout partner in the MAXIMUM POTENTIAL fitness video). But it seems likely to me that somebody mixed up Zuñiga and Zagarino. Anyway whoever directed it, if anybody did, I hope they brought back the dog.
Maybe a sequel, if FIST FIGHTER 2 isn’t an urban legend or a typo. Rivero did a few more English-language b-action movies in between Mexican films and television. Hues had the biggest subsequent career as a go-to bad guy in movies including I COME IN PEACE, KICKBOXER 2, BLACKBELT, MISSION OF JUSTICE, TALONS OF THE EAGLE, TC 2000 and many more. He was top billed in DEATH MATCH (1994), an underground kickboxing movie in which Rivero played a supporting role.