Have you ever noticed what a hell of year 1987 was for action movies? Not only did it give us several stone cold unimpeachable classics, but most of them have a distinct, super-charged, roided out, larger-than-life 1987ness to them that could only really happen at that moment on the verge of ’80s excess sugar crash, between everybody wanting to be RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II and everybody wanting to be DIE HARD. We had PREDATOR, ROBOCOP, LETHAL WEAPON and EASTERN CONDORS. And also we had THE RUNNING MAN, STEEL DAWN, WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE, AMERICAN NINJA 2, STEELE JUSTICE and MIAMI CONNECTION. Some day, after finishing some other passion projects, I’d love to write a book just reviewing all the action movies of 1987. Get the Pulitzer ready.
So whenever I come across something that seems like maybe I should see it and then I realize it was released in 1987, that moves it up the list. And I found this one that, while I’m not sure it’s on par with most of the movies on that list, it wouldn’t be too out of place either. It’s a special movie because it’s the only action vehicle for a unique talent named Tiana Alexandra, who was reportedly the first female student of Bruce Lee as well as the first Vietnamese-American to join SAG. She was in THE KILLER ELITE and then the mini-series PEARL and a couple other movies, but this is a full-on showcase for her talents written by her husband Stirling Silliphant, Academy Award winning writer of IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT, as well as student and friend of Bruce Lee who wrote him into the show Longstreet and the movie MARLOWE and concocted what became CIRCLE OF IRON with him. (He’s also the writer of VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED, SHAFT IN AFRICA, THE ENFORCER, and yes, 1987’s OVER THE TOP).
Silliphant also executive produced it along with Moshe Diamant, known for his work with Sho Kosugi and Jean-Claude Van Damme. The director is Joel Silberg, after BREAKIN’ and RAPPIN’, before LAMBADA, seemingly less interested in keeping up with current trends.
The story feels a little dated for ’87, kind of a ‘70s TV show feel to it, but spiced up with some quirky details and explosions of crazy action. For example, Alexandra’s character, an ass-kicking undercover cop, is named Checkers Goldberg. At one point she’s disparagingly described as a Chinese Jew, but there’s never any delving into her backstory. Her partner is named Waldo (David Dukes, RAWHEAD REX), a dork who calls her “kiddo” and describes her as “my friend” and near the end emotionally confesses his love to her.
I don’t blame him. She’s cool, she’s hot, and she’s really funny. In a weird way her performance reminds me of Jane Fonda – she’s balancing comic timing and sex appeal, and doing an airhead routine where she remains in control at all times. But also she does kung fu.
Checkers is introduced riding a motorcycle into the woods, wearing a leather jacket with fringe under the arms, chewing gum, looking like this:
…to do a heroin deal with Brian Thompson (COBRA), who turns out to also be a sex criminal.
“You know, I’m sad to say I never made it with a China chick,” he says, tries to pay her $200 for sex, then tries to rape her at gunpoint when she turns him down. She knows what to do.
The next day we see her finish teaching a swordfighting class at her Kendo dojo in Chinatown in time to flirt with Waldo and then drive him to the airport for his mission of tracking the drugs to an overseas booking agent who also has a good name: Jason Hannibal (Rod Steiger from, of course, IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT).
Poor Checkers should be on that case, but she has to stay home and bust some more drug dealers using uzis, kung fu and a motorcycle. There’s a stunt that looks so dangerous I suspect it was an accident that they decided to work into the plot. She somehow does a wheelie and jumps over a car onto the back of a truck but then slams against the front and falls backwards. Then she gets up and climbs onto the windshield to fight with the driver.
She ends up crashing into water, and then she gets called in to go after Hannibal. She gets the news from an officer who drives up to hand her a phone so Waldo can explain that she’s coming to Buenos Ares disguised as a wannabe dancer named “Cinderella Pu.” Since her wet tank top has become see-through the officer is very uncomfortable and distracted as he waits for her to hand the receiver back.
Unfortunately while she’s undercover, which is most of the movie, she’s working from Asian stereotypes, talking with an accent, in broken English, referring to “Cinderella” in the third person, always smiling and wearing what Waldo calls “Suzie Wong dresses.” She’s definitely playing it as the Asian person getting one over on the stupid whiteys by pandering to their low expectations of her, but I wish there weren’t as many scenes where she’s putting on the act, because she’s so cool when she’s not.
It seems to be very effective, though: she walks uninvited into a dance rehearsal, skips up to the boss (Norman Erlich)’s table and says, “Excuse please. Mr. Casaldo? I am Cinderella Pu. I sing, I dance—“
To which he says, “Yeah, okay, it sounds interesting. Reggie, let’s see what this little lady can do,” and clears the stage for her!
“Cinderella” (or her dance double Cindera Che, also a dancer in BREAKIN’ 2, the “Smooth Criminal” video and LA LA LAND) does a bunch of handsprings and she explains that she calls it “Karate and dance, all in one.” They hire her to headline “that tango number” on the spot.
While staying in this comical persona she tries to snoop around behind the scenes and gets in some uncomfortable racial situations (her fault) with Hannibal’s driver Ike (John Hancock, CITY HEAT), who is very suspicious of her, but doesn’t realize it’s because she arrested him once in New York.
There’s a drastic tonal shift when she finds out fellow dancer Maria (Jessica Schultz) was raped, killed and mutilated – her breasts cut off. And we know it was Hannibal’s henchman Dozu, played by Professor Toru Tanaka (REVENGE OF THE NINJA, PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE, THE RUNNING MAN, DEAD HEAT, DARKMAN, LAST ACTION HERO). The good news is that means she gets to have a really good knock-down-drag-down with the WWF legend and crush his head between her knees.
The gruesome fate of Maria turns out to be part of the darkly satirical conceit of the movie: that this evil agent’s scheme is to convince aspiring starlets they need breast augmentation so he can give them heroin implants to smuggle into the states.
When Checkers figures that out she barges in on Waldo’s workout to have a few words with him about putting her in this situation. What the fuck?
Turns out he didn’t know about it, but when she explains it he adds up how many dead bodies have been found in order to calculate how much money Hannibal has made.
“That’s all it means to you men! Tits and money!” Checkers yells. But don’t worry, they make up. Normally I’d say she could do better than him, but I’m sure he’s at least a little bit of a stand-in for Silliphant, who stayed married to Alexandra (who now goes by Alexandra-Silliphant) from 1974 until his death in 1996, so that makes it kinda cute.
The couple of fight scenes and chases are good stuff. I wish there were more. Admittedly it drags a little in the middle, when it’s just about figuring out Hannibal’s scheme. But Alexandra is always interesting to watch, finding genuinely funny expressions, postures and line readings that suggest a huge talent that unfortunately did not evolve over a long career, because she quit acting that very year. Instead she directed a documentary called FROM HOLLYWOOD TO HANOI, about returning to Vietnam, where her parents had emigrated from during the war. Executive produced by Oliver Stone, it was the first American film shot in Vietnam, and was well reviewed.
Alexandra-Silliphant has lots of old and new documentary clips on her Youtube channel “Tianaworld,” but I’m happy to find that she seems to still be proud of her earlier career. A few years before CATCH THE HEAT she was a recording artist being managed by Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones. One of her songs was actually about Bruce Lee.
And she made a one hour fitness video called Karatecize that combined her music with dance and self defense. Kind of like the dance “Cinderella” did to get the tango gig. It seems to be impossible to find the VHS tape, but she posted some clips.
And she’s not just an ‘80s phenomenon. She has a producing credit on David Cronenberg’s A DANGEROUS METHOD thanks to involvement in the play it was based on. And she directed a documentary called THE GENERAL AND ME, which she must’ve finished in 2017 according to IMDb, though Silliphant is credited as co-writer and co-director.
Anyway, if she’s still working, maybe there’s hope for CATCH THE HEAT… AGAIN.
March 3rd, 2020 at 7:04 pm
Movies were not trying to be Die Hard in 1987 I assure you. :)