Breathing Fire

“Listen, Annie’s parents were killed for a piece of plastic pizza. I want you guys to just stay home and not get hurt.”

If you’re like me, you’re very excited for Michelle Yeoh’s new movie EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE, which is in a platform release right now in the U.S. (I’m gonna see it tomorrow, some cities are getting it next Friday). And if you know about that movie you may also know it co-stars Ke Huy Quan, formerly known as Jonathan Ke Quan. He’s a superstar to anyone who was a kid in the ’80s, because he played Short Round in INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM and Data in THE GOONIES. But after that he worked more sporadically than he wanted. He’s American, born in Vietnam, but he did a few movies in Taiwan, Japan and Hong Kong, while his most prominent Hollywood roles were a season of Head of the Class and a small part in ENCINO MAN.

He left the business in the early 2000s, but the success of CRAZY RICH ASIANS inspired him to try again, and right away he got to play Michelle Yeoh’s husband! Good for him. His return inspired me to finally check out a movie I’d been curious about for years, BREATHING FIRE (1991), because it’s his only previous English language martial arts movie, and very much the kind of chintzy low budget b-movie I enjoy. Atrocious dialogue and acting, convoluted-to-nonsensical story, but lots of laughs, training montages and pretty cool Hong Kong style fights. A fun time. To give you an idea, the DVD I rented was a double feature with a dubbed Bruce Li vehicle called EDGE OF FURY, and the cover pretends like Bolo Yeung (who plays one of the bad guys and is credited as “Bolo Young”) is the star.

BREATHING FIRE opens with a character named Michael Moore (Jerry Trimble, THE MASTER, FULL CONTACT) surrounded by plastic food, carefully cutting into a plastic pizza with a knife. It’s unclear what’s going on. But then he’s in a suit and tie with his hair slicked back driving his sons Tony (Eddie Saavedra, no other credits) and Charlie (Quan). Charlie jokes about him buying them a Porsche if they win their martial arts tournament.

“What do you guys think, I’m made of money? Maybe I should just rob a bank.”

While the boys are at the tournament and Charlie is almost getting beat up by two adult men (one old enough to have a receding hairline) in the locker room, their dad is somewhere in a limo, meeting with a woman (Jacqueline Pulliam, “Bar Beauty,” HOLLYWOOD HARRY), putting on a fake mustache, going to a— oh crap, he really is robbing a bank! The lady leads him in pretending he’s a blind man, and the rest of their crew are there, including a guy disguised as a mail man and an old lady—

Oh shit, there’s Bolo! Apparently his character is called Thunder. They have guns but still kung fu the shit out of a bunch of people. Thunder finds the bank manager Peter Stern (Drake Diamond) in the bathroom and gives him a swirly but later it becomes clear that he’s a reluctant conspirator in the robbery, or something.

Afterwards, Michael presents a bizarre and convoluted plan: he locks the stolen gold bars in a safe that can only be opened by a giant key. He heats up the key, melts an imprint of it into the back of the aforementioned plastic pizza, destroys the key, and gives each member of the gang a slice of the pizza so that they would all have to get together to make a new key and get into the safe.

Incidentally, it’s Peter’s birthday. He must’ve had no say in scheduling the robbery. When he gets home he storms past his family with the birthday cake, puts the pizza slice in a normal envelope and addresses it to Michael’s brother David (Ed Neil, a stuntman who is in numerous Power Rangers shows) who was his buddy in ‘Nam.

Michael and the gang show up to beat Peter and his wife (Jackie O’Brien, “Artist,” PRETTY WOMAN) to death. (Happy birthday.) Luckily Peter’s teenage daughter Annie (Laura Hamilton, BLOODSCENT) is downstairs trying to mail the pizza when they get there. While she’s there we also see that she has pet bunnies and geese, and the geese are wearing birthday hats. I thought you should know.

I don’t know where she goes all night, but the next day she shows up at the residence of Mr. David Moore holding a small dog (but no geese or bunnies) and gives him the envelope with the pizza. (Her dad clearly told her to mail it, but I’m not sure he put the proper postage on it.)

Tony and Charlie and their dad live in a huge place with a pool, a training shed and some guy in a Hawaiian shirt named Harry (Gary Green) who yells at Charlie for having a messy room, so Charlie throws a dart at his head, leads him on a chase, punches him in the face and knocks him down some stairs. But, you know, in a funny way.

There’s a Tom Sawyer reference where the boys have to paint a wall when their friend Mickey (Juan Ojeda) shows up wanting to go surfing. They trick him by doing dance moves with the paint rollers so that he’ll take over to show off that he’s better at it.

I didn’t realize this at first, but this Juan Ojeda is the martial artist we now know as TJ Storm, in his first movie. He was later in MORTAL KOMBAT, ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA AND AMERICA, PUNISHER WAR ZONE, BLACK COBRA and KICKBOXER: VENGEANCE. He’s also a well-established motion capture performer who played Colonel Quartich’s mech suit in AVATAR, Godzilla in GODZILLA, the Predator in THE PREDATOR, and Colossus in DEADPOOL. And here he’s one of the highlights of the movie in a scene where they go to a dance club and he does b-boy/MJ type moves to a song called “Mickey’s Rap” and then it turns into a fight and he combines dance moves with kicks and punches.

We learn through some cruddy war flashbacks that Michael adopted Charlie after making him an orphan when he was a baby in ‘Nam. David was there when it happened and is only now meeting Charlie and hearing his name for the first time. “Is this the baby?” he asks, looking at a photo, and praises Michael for “doing the right thing” by adopting him.

When bank robbers Thunder, Tank (Wendell C. Whitaker) and some guy in leather pants and vest show up at the house to attack Annie, the boys and then Uncle David fight them off. The boys later convince David to teach them his style of martial arts, so we get some of the ol’ unorthodox training techniques I enjoy: sitting on their shins, spinning bowling balls, smashing watermelons, punching a phone book attached to a tree until they make a hole all the way through to the bark. Also classics like fighting blindfolded and jogging on the beach.

One original part of the story is when Charlie and Tony decide to go vigilante and attack Tank at home. They lure him out of his messy living room (walls collaged with crooked movie posters including CODE OF SILENCE) by throwing a basketball through his window. When he comes out to yell at them he steps on a nail board booby trap, Charlie trampolines into the window and knocks him down the stairs. The twist is that Tank lives with his mom (Pamela Maxton), who is blind, and tells her they’re his friends, so they end up all sitting together in the living room and Tank cries and agrees to help them catch the other bank robbers.

There’s also a weird scene where they go looking for a guy at a bar run by little people and get beat up.

At the end they all show up at the metal refinery where the gold is hidden and there are various matchups and fights in dirt, on catwalks, etc. There’s a long battle with Thunder, in which Bolo makes his pecs bounce up and down as a threatening gesture.

An enjoyably over-the-top twist happens when Charlie jumps in to protect his uncle and his dad starts fighting him. “How dare you turn against me?” Uncle David reveals that Michael killed Charlie’s mother in ‘Nam and Charlie says “What are you talking about? IT’S IMPOSSIBLE!

Confronted with the question, his dad says, “I did it. So what!?” like a super villain. So yes, this is the movie where Short Round fights Bolo Yeung and two-time world kickboxing champion Jerry “Golden Boy” Trimble. Trimble gets pretty mega during the fight, saying, “No boy, don’t call me dad. Now, get ready to meet your mother – IN HELL!” And when Charlie has almost defeated him but suddenly looks at him with sympathy, dad kicks him in the nuts.

It’s a grueling fight where Charlie gets thrown into lots of metal things, but does a flying multi-kick and Rothrock-style over-the-shoulder kick to the face. Tony shows up just in time to see the police take his dad away and then cries and blames Charlie, suddenly switching to calling him “my dad” instead of “dad.” The fucker. So the finale is about the two brothers facing each other in the tournament. At first Charlie refuses to fight, but he’s threatened with being a disgrace to the martial arts and banned from the competition for two years. It’s a vicious fight and they only make up because Charlie decides not to block a kick to the head, is knocked unconscious, and Tony thinks for a minute that he killed him. When Charlie comes back to he congratulates Tony for winning the tournament… which Tony happily accepts.

Fuck you Tony, I’m glad your dad is in prison.

I have no explanation for why it’s called BREATHING FIRE. Alternate titles include BLOOD FIGHT and BLOODBROTHER – THE FIGHTER, THE WINNER. But who are they fooling? You and I both know it should be called PIZZA THE ACTION.

IMDb trivia claims that “Bolo Yeung demanded that the shooting of the film be delayed 6 months so he could grow a ponytail. The producers were so intimidated by him that they agreed.”

The credited directors are Lou Kennedy and Brandon De Wilde (neither of whom have any other credits), but IMDb also lists Brandon Pender (sword fight coordinator, STEELE JUSTICE), and editor Rick Mitchell (BLOOD GAMES) gets an “added scenes directed by” on the end credits. As you might expect with that kind of authorship it’s a very slapdash affair, given a little legitimacy by a very serious score by Paul Hertzog (BLOODSPORT, KICKBOXER). To be fair I’m sure the sub-VHS quality transfer on the DVD makes it look worse than it should – it would be nice to have a proper HD restoration to show off the Madonna posters and shit in Charlie’s bedroom and the pastel colors of all the early ’90s windbreakers and beachwear (including a Rude Dog tank top and a “Don’t Worry Be Happy” t-shirt).

BREATHING FIRE delivers on all kinds of enjoyable silliness, as well as on the main thing I was looking for: finding out if Quan could really do martial arts. Yep, he’s for real, doing all kinds of choreography and high flying kicks without ditching that goofy kid persona we know him for.

For TEMPLE OF DOOM, Quan was trained in Taekwando by veteran stuntman Philip Tan. He liked it enough to continue classes until he was a second degree black belt. One of his other teachers was Tan Tao-Liang, who also taught Yuen Biao and Shannon Lee, starred in John Woo’s HAND OF DEATH, and co-wrote BREATHING FIRE under the pseudonym Delon Tanner, partly based on a 1977 film he starred in called THE FLASH LEGS.

It would’ve been cool if Quan got to build off of this and get to, say, a Mark Dacascos level of action stardom. He did get to do a 1997 Taiwanese film called RED PIRATE, which seems promising because it’s from HALF A LOAF OF KUNG FU director Chen Chi-Hwa. I haven’t been able to find a DVD of it, but there’s a bootleg on Youtube at the moment, so maybe I’ll try that. Quan also worked as an assistant to Corey Yuen and helped with the choreography of X-MEN and THE ONE. So if he’s fighting in EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE (which I believe he is) it’s not out of nowhere. The guy breathes fire.

This entry was posted on Friday, April 1st, 2022 at 10:32 am and is filed under Action, Martial Arts, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

4 Responses to “Breathing Fire”

  1. In the alternate reality of Asian genre cinema, I hope the Michael Moore in this movie made a documentary about the Steve Martin in GODZILLA.

  2. That wonderful Vulture profile of Quan revealed that he worked as an Assistant Director for Wong Kar Wai, which blew my mind (also that his business manager is a fellow Goonie).

  3. Wow so he really DID have the chops to play an older Short Round in a 90s made INDY 4 after all. Would’ve been way more interesting than Mutt (who might as well should’ve been named Bastard).

  4. I’ll always remember watching this during one of my first few weeks of college, stoned on the couch late at night with some friends while this started playing at like 2AM on one of those local channels that mostly shows foreign news and Spanish soap operas. It’s such a bizarre movie that looking back at it always feels like a fever dream. I wanted to tell someone about it once but googled the pizza key thing first to make sure it actually happened.

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