This is not a review of the 1992 Hong Kong FULL CONTACT starring Chow Yun Fat and directed by Ringo Lam. It’s a review of the 1993 American FULL CONTACT starring Jerry Trimble (THE MASTER, TERMINATOR WOMAN) and directed by Rick Jacobson (BLACKBELT, BLACK THUNDER, DRAGON FIRE, Ash vs Evil Dead). There’s no specific reason why FULL CONTACT has to be the title for this one, so they should’ve gone with something else, but they did not. And we need not stress about that which we cannot control.
It’s a movie I bought on VHS years ago – I think it must’ve been when I was doing “The Super-Kumite,” my tournament of tournament fighting movies. But the team I assigned it to must’ve been out of contention, so I never watched it.
But it happens to be one of the early movies of Michael Jai White, back when he was still Michael White. After THE TOXIC AVENGER PARTs II and III he had tiny parts in TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES II: THE SECRET OF THE OOZE (uncredited), TRUE IDENTITY, UNIVERSAL SOLDIER, and then this. So I chose this to be another tangent in my TOXIC AVENGER review series.
White’s character is credited as “Low-Ball,” and he doesn’t get to fight in the movie, but it’s his most significant acting up to this point. He’s the master of ceremonies for an underground fighting circuit they call “the Alley Fights” even though they take place in a small, cluttered warehouse of some kind. But he gets to call the fighters, start the fights, and watch them from a sort of makeshift throne made of two car seats placed on top of a crate or something. In one of the fights a guy keeps getting thrown on to his lap and he throws him off. He wears a kufi (those flat African hats) and a leather jacket with no shirt underneath. He’s in the opening scene and all the matches throughout.
In the opening scene a fighter named Johnny Powers (Gerry Blanck, choreographer of FUTURE KICK) dominates. But afterwards he’s walking around drunk and an unseen fighter ambushes him in an alley, breaking his neck with some tiger claw type move, leaving him face down on the pavement, dead.
It probly goes without saying, but this was in the days when most western martial arts movies were DTV affairs starring someone that was trying to be the next Van Damme, or the next Don “The Dragon” Wilson, or they were the actual Don “The Dragon” Wilson. I find these movies sort of comforting with their combination of familiar formula and scrappy DIY spirit.
For them to work you need a lead who’s either pretty cool, or who’s clearly intended to be cool and failed in a way that’s amusing. (In this case I think he’s pretty cool.) You want it to choose one or more formulas or tropes from a list of tried and true classics (in this one they use underground fighting tournament, trying to find out who killed your brother, and unorthodox training methods). You also need to have a certain amount of overall storytelling competence, but it doesn’t hurt to have lots of laughable clumsiness along the way, as long as there’s some personality to keep it from being totally generic, and some parts that come across as more weird than they were probly intended. FULL CONTACT checks off all of these boxes, so I really enjoyed it.
This is one of the ones where all the competitive martial artists in the cast get top billing with their various championships listed under their names. That’s always a good sign.
Trimble’s character Luke is a broke farm boy from Fresno. One day he hitchhikes into some barren, industrial looking, graffiti strewn part of L.A. carrying a suitcase, which is immediately stolen by three Vietnamese gang members (Hiro Koda [stunt coordinator, Cobra Kai], Andrew Russin and Hyon Lee). He chases them into an alley and puts up a good fight, but they pull out nunchakas and switchblades and he’s in trouble until a large Black man (Marcus Aurelius, DEATH MATCH, BLADE) steps out and scares them off. He introduces himself as Pep and since he’s at the bottom of his bottle of whisky he asks Luke to repay him by buying him a drink.
They walk into a nearby bar and as soon as Luke sits down some guy (Raymond Storti, PROTOTYPE) starts asking him “What the fuck are you starin at?” and Pep immediately slips out the door. (At first I wondered if that meant this was some sort of set up, but I guess Pep is just staying out of this one.)
As the guy gets in his face he starts talking to him under his breath – turns out he’s starting a fight as a scam to steal money from the guys he’s gambling with, and offers him a cut to play along. So Luke throws him into the table, they leave together as friends, the guy introduces himself as Albert and says, “Let me buy you some chow.”
Continuity note: Luke did not carry the suitcase from the alley or into the bar, so I assumed the gang got it, but then he has it again when he leaves the bar.
I love how within a couple of minutes he’s bought a drink for one stranger who helped in a fight and been offered lunch from a different stranger who started a fake fight with him. He explains that he’s in town to see his brother Johnny Powers – the guy who died in the opening. So he learns from Albert that Johnny was lying about being a stuntman (weird detail) and that he was killed last night (weird timing). Then Albert brings Luke to his somewhat run down apartment and lets him have some time alone – luckily in his suitcase on top of some loose clothes he has one (1) photo of himself with his brother to look at mournfully.
He goes outside for more solitude and immediately spots a woman (Denise Buick, ANGELFIST) in cowboy boots and denim cutoffs dancing to classical music playing on a boombox hanging from a hook. Then she switches the tape to something more contemporary and gets more sexy/pelvic-thrusty.
She turns out to be Albert’s sister Tori, and she’s not happy when she realizes she’s being watched, but of course after her initial antagonism toward Luke – and after she’s embarrassed when he accidentally sees her perform at a strip club – they’ll start to fall in love.
By the time the characters and setting have been established, FULL CONTACT has earned my respect. The way this guy drifts into town and gets wrapped up with these three characters through random circumstances has kind of a pulp crime novel feel to me. And the fact that each meeting happens immediately after the other is very goofy and forced, so there’s that balance of competence and clumsiness I mentioned.
I like action movies where the protagonist is broke. (See also: HARD TIMES, FIRST BLOOD, THEY LIVE, LIONHEART, HARD TARGET, SURVIVING THE GAME, FIGHTING, BLOOD & BONE.) Luke has nothing but his suitcase, he has to crash at the shitty apartment of a guy he met randomly in a bar fight, and when Tori tells him to find a hotel he says, “I don’t have that kinda money.” For her part, Tori lives with her brother and works at the strip club, though she says she doesn’t want to. And she rides the bus – I don’t think any of these characters own vehicles. I like that her introduction implies a dream of doing another kind of dancing – whether she pursues it seriously or not – but otherwise they don’t harp on that point. Luke gets kind of overprotective at the club, beating the shit out of some guy who gets handsy, but for me it comes across as his issue that he needs to deal with and not a judgment of her for having this job.
Luke does go to the police, so he’s not just taking Albert’s word for it about his brother. A detective (Larry Ames) shows him gory photos, says he has no leads, then takes a personal phone call where he talks about getting together with his brother and says, “Yeah – family is special, isn’t it?”
After Luke settles in with Albert, that guy Pep shows up again and convinces Luke to enter the Alley Fights as sort of an undercover deal to figure out who killed his brother. Pep appoints himself his manager and trainer, and we get one of the top types of training sequences (tied with inspirational rock montage) – the ones where the sensei makes up different training methods that are kind of physical and kind of philosophical and probly make no sense but are still awesome. The Mr. Miyagi shit. But they’re designed to take advantage of the landscape: dodging rotten tomatoes found in a dumpster, kicking liquor bottles hanging from strings, catching a condom between his fingertips (unused, thankfully), and most of all racing the same city bus every morning until he can beat it to the next stop. (I did that one time when a bus didn’t stop for me and let me tell you I felt pretty fucking cool getting on the bus with everybody looking at me. I had the help of a traffic light, though.)
Pep is a funny character because he’s drinking in almost every scene, he mentions Sun Tzu too often, and he messes with Luke by acting really lazy while making him work out. Their first exercise is Luke pushing Pep around in a wheelbarrow while he reads to him from The Art of War. The rest of the time Pep sits in a La-Z-Boy which he makes Luke carry from location to location. They have a funny chemistry.
I like that Pep sends him to Tori to learn about flexibility (not a sex joke, though they immediately almost have sex, and later go through with it). She turns out to be cool and starts jogging with him and stuff too.
I like Trimble. He played a gloriously mulleted villain in THE MASTER (not the P.T. Anderson remake, the original Tsui Hark version starring Jet Li), he was in HEAT (not the Burt Reynolds one, the Michael Mann one), he was in some Jesse V. Johnson movies and inspired the DEBT COLLECTOR series by telling him stories about his side gigs. I can’t claim his acting is very good in this one, and the character is pretty goofy when he puts on his brother’s lettermen’s jacket and I started wondering if he was supposed to be younger than Trimble’s actual age, which I believe was early thirties. But I found Luke likable. He courageously agrees to learn how to fight and enter this tournament. He works hard and is self deprecating while training. And in his courtship with Tori he’s neither the macho lady’s man or the emotionally shut off type these characters usually have to be. He’s frequently walking away from fight stuff to check on Tori’s feelings. It may be relevant to mention that the screenwriter seems to be a woman – it’s credited to Beverly Gray (BEYOND THE CALL OF DUTY) from a story by Robert King (SILK II, CUTTHROAT ISLAND, creator of The Good Fight) – which I believe means it’s rewritten from King’s BLOODFIST script, which was also the case with Jacobson’s DRAGONFIRE, which came out the same year!
The sanctioned fights are all in one location, but it works. Good choice to light it with a sort of strobing, hanging light instead of something bright. Adds a certain seediness. Albert is in the tournament too and he’s a fun character – kind of hyper and show-offy and doing odd things like joyfully munching on a raw onion while watching. The fights are pretty simple, but find many, many reasons for Trimble to do flying kicks.
The most popular fashion choices in this movie seem to be light blue denim and loose black tank tops (tucked in). There are also a decent number of Zubaz pants. I noticed one guy in the crowd wearing a Sub Pop “LOSER” t-shirt and one with a KMD logo!
The other fighters are lightly sketched, but good enough. The top contender is Mustafa Ahmed (Joe Charles, DEADLY BET, SWORN TO JUSTICE) and there’s another guy they call “The Incredible Hulk” (former NFL player Matthew Willig, WILD CARD, 3 FROM HELL, BIRDS OF PREY, Andre the Giant on Young Rock). There’s also a “Ladies Night” where fighters include Michele “Mouse” Krasnoo from KICKBOXER 4: THE AGGRESSOR and there’s also a Jamie Krasnoo (SHOOTFIGHTER: FIGHT TO THE DEATH) credited, I believe that’s a sister.
IMDb claims that Reginald VelJohnson is in it as “Fighter #2” but I’m gonna go out on a limb and guess that he did not take a non-speaking action role in a low budget fight movie during season 5 of Family Matters.
I have already described more than enough reasons for me to enjoy this movie, but it also has a twist ending. SPOILER – while Luke is winning the tournament, Tori figures out that his brother was actually killed by (gasp) Pep! And Luke realizes Pep chose to train him as some sort of Sun Tzu keep your enemies close bullshit. Of course I love that this guy who laid around drinking for the whole movie and claimed to have bad knees starts doing acrobatic spin kicks and shit. (That’s where they got the idea for THE USUAL SUSPECTS.) But I admit it kinda messed with me because I really liked Pep and this sensei-student relationship. What’s cool is that before they fight Pep admits very sincerely that he likes Luke and tries to convince him to walk away.
I don’t think FULL CONTACT ever came out on DVD, according to justwatch.net it’s not available streaming anywhere, and the VHS copy on Amazon right now costs about a hundred bucks. But if you can find a reasonable one on ebay, or if you happen to have an old tape laying around like I did, or if you can find it some sneaky way, or if Vinegar Syndrome or MVD decide to put it out in the future, I recommend it!