It was the fourth week of June, 1992. BATMAN RETURNS was ruling the roost. It wasn’t the unbridled Batmania of ’89, but it was the biggest movie of the year. On Tuesday the 23rd a couple notable-to-me albums came out. Eric B and Rakim released their fourth and final album, Don’t Sweat the Technique. It included a song about the Gulf War (“Casualties of War”) and the classic “Know the Ledge” (originally on the JUICE soundtrack).
At the time I was also into Deee-Lite, who released their less popular second album Infinity Within. I’ve never been an electronic dance music guy, but the presence of Bootsy lured me into the first album (in fact, seeing them live was the first time I saw Bootsy live), and then I stuck with them. I had not listened to this album in years, but I enjoyed putting it on to get into the 1992 spirit. It’s very of-its-time in that it blends genres and features guest appearances by Arrested Development, Jamal-ski and Michael Franti (then in Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, later Spearhead). I think it holds up as a good album and some of my favorites are the four shamelessly corny P.S.A. type songs: “Vote, Baby, Vote,” “I Had a Dream I Was Falling through a Hole in the Ozone Layer,” “Fuddy Duddy Judge” and “Rubber Lover.” (Why is there politics in my dance music what happened to just dancing without having to care about anything I’m calling the cops)
And then on Wednesday the 24th on the new release shelf of your local video store you may have found the DTV action movie DEATH RING. Its contribution to weirdness in the year of our lord 1992 is that it’s the movie that says “NORRIS, DRAGO, McQUEEN, SWAYZE” on the cover and yes, the Drago is Billy Drago, but the others are Mike Norris (son of Chuck), Chad McQueen (son of Steve) and Don Swayze (younger brother of Patrick).
The director is R.J. Kizer, whose only other feature as a director is HELL COMES TO FROGTOWN, unless you count GODZILLA 1985 (which he did the American footage for thanks to his history as an editor for Roger Corman movies like BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS and GALAXY OF TERROR). The screenplay is by one-timer George T. LeBrun, sharing story credit with Norris, who must’ve originated it as a vehicle for himself.
I’m sorry to be mean, but Mike Norris (YOUNG WARRIORS, BORN AMERICAN, DELTA FORCE 3) makes me appreciate his dad a whole lot more. I’m sure his karate and stuntwork are legit, but he has very little screen presence to make up for his stiff line delivery and comical emotional outburst scenes. And he doesn’t even look cool. Just looks like a completely average dude with circa early ‘90s average dude jeans, average dude tucked in shirt and average dude haircut with receding hairline.
He just is not a natural fit to star in this movie he created for himself. We can joke about Chad McQueen and Don Swayze, but if it was between the three of them who can carry a movie I don’t think anybody without the last name Norris would choose Mike first or second.
But I guess that’s the novelty of it. I do not consider this a good movie on pretty much any level except that it’s kind of fun to watch. But that makes it better than some.
Norris stars as blandly named ex-Green Beret Matt Collins, who during the credits wins a grueling “Survival of the Fittest” bicycle/climbing/rappelling/sandbag-carrying race, with the support of his girlfriend Lauren (Isabel Glasser, also in PURE COUNTRY that year) and best friend/helicopter pilot buddy “Skylord” Harris (McQueen a year after MARTIAL LAW). It gets TV coverage, catching the eye of evil mastermind Danton Vachs (Drago the year after MARTIAL LAW II: UNDERCOVER), who needs better prey for his THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME/DEADLY PREY/HARD TARGET/SURVIVING THE GAME type human hunting expedition. His TV is actually equipped with a “video graphic printer” to make a printout of a screengrab of Matt to help in finding him.
Matt and Lauren are both kidnapped and brought to a remote island where Matt is hunted and Lauren is held as collateral, sometimes tied to a table. The title refers to the prize, a giant tacky ring shaped like an eagle head with talons clutching two rubies.
Vachs has a right hand woman named Ms. Ling (Elizabeth Fong Sung, “Interpreter,” TANGO & CASH) and female bodyguards called Bambi (Melanie Elam) and Thumper (Taryn Swallow). His human-hunting clientele including Iceman (Victor Quintero, also stunt coordinator), Mr. Chen (George Kee Cheung, THE KILLER ELITE, RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II, ONE GOOD COP, THE MASTER), Mr. Temple (Donegan Smith) and Apache, played by Henry Kingi, a veteran stuntman who we’ve already seen twice in summer ’92 – first as the movie actor Riggs mistakes for a real mugger in LETHAL WEAPON 3, then as the first mugger/rapist Catwoman fights in BATMAN RETURNS.
And then there’s Mr. Cross, played by Branscombe Richmond, who also had a brief appearance in BATMAN RETURNS that summer, as well as ACES: IRON EAGLE III. His best known role, co-starring on Renegade, would start airing that September, but most of the movies he was in he’d just be a dude you had to spot – for example, in the aforementioned summer movies he played “Terrifying Clown #1” and “Rebel Rapist.” Here has one scene but it’s a very memorable one where he wears scary blue contacts, interrupts Vachs’ big dinner presentation to complain about last year’s overly easy hunting, and is stabbed with a fork and stomped to death for it. Sort of like the embezzler getting electrocuted by Blofeld or Jack Palance getting electrocuted by the Joker. A good Just How Evil Is He? scene.
Back at home, Skylord follows clues to find his friends. Do the people involved in the abduction all have a matching, easily traceable tattoo on their wrists? Yes they do. In one scene he goes home to get a shotgun and his girlfriend Cindy (Tammy Stones, GOOD GIRL, BAD GIRL) welcomes him with her boobs out so he kisses her once and then leaves to find a mysterious satanist named Jessup (Dennis Lipscomb, also in UNDER SIEGE that year) at an occult bookstore.
On the island, Matt defends himself from the hunters. Vachs has them wearing mics so he can listen to what’s going on, and he always seems to think the deaths he hears are Mike until Mike goes on the mic to tell him he’s still alive. (I guess common fucking sense is not one of the tactics taught in the Green Berets.) After he kills Mr. Chin, Matt says into the mic, “Vachs! I hope you can hear me. ‘Cause your Mr. Chin is now Mr. Dead.”
In one humorously perverse scene Vachs and Ms. Ling make out while listening to the grunts of Mike and Apache fighting to the death. Drago is doing the exact same perverse psycho enjoying how evil he is thing he does in numerous other b-action movies, but it definitely adds legitimacy to this. The guy is a pro.
Almost an hour into the movie Matt is walking and suddenly just falls straight through the ground into a cave, where he meets John Blackwell (Swayze, EDGE OF HONOR), a survival instructor the hunters were after a few months ago. They think he’s dead because he left a trail to make it look like he fell into quicksand (one of the top threats in this world, besides lava, according to my elementary school playground education). This is actually a pretty good twist in the movie because I didn’t expect Matt to suddenly have a more charismatic guy to team up with. And Patrick Swayze is such a force that even having a guy resemble him has some residual power. Matt convinces him that Vachs will never expect them to go back to the mansion – basically the same plan Max comes up with in FURY ROAD.
When they get there, Ms. Ling faces off against Mike while sporting bladed knuckles. The moment she says, “You Americans were always too weak with women” he throws her through a window. His one-liner “Ladies first” is okay, but unneeded. Sometimes you should just let the window-throwing do the talking.
There’s also a sword fight with Vachs, ending in a graphic (spoiler) beheading. Of Vachs, unfortunately. I like that after Vachs is dead Ms. Ling pops up again, in the spirit of Karl from DIE HARD, I guess you could say. There’s a strange edit after she’s beating the shit out of Matt on the lawn and gets shot dead by Lauren. It dissolves to Matt suddenly transported to the deck above, jumping off and doing a somersault and Lauren is already inside the helicopter waiting to go. A little bit later she asks “What did you go back into the house for?” and he reveals that he went back “to collect my prize, the Death Ring.” Which is too bad because I was positive he had said, “Hold on, I gotta take a dump before we leave” and it had been cut for pacing.
There’s a brief post credits shot of Mike (or somebody) discarding a metal baseball bat. Definitely a reference or outtake from the earlier batting cage scene, but I have no idea what it’s meant to communicate.
One goofy theme of the movie is that Matt struggles in his life and relationships because he was trained to kill people but can’t do it as a civilian. He explains to Lauren that he was so good they made him an instructor and he didn’t get to fight anymore so he got mad and quit. “Now if I use my training they’ll throw me in jail.” So getting kidnapped and forced to kill people is, while initially inconvenient, a great thing for him. In FIRST BLOOD it comes off as fucked up and tragic that it’s all he feels he can do anymore, here it’s more like unfair he doesn’t get to do it enough.
The way they show that Matt is troubled is just by making him a bitch. When a drunk tries to hit on Lauren at a bar and he says, “I SAID she’s with me!” he sounds like a kid having a tantrum. Later he whines about how she owns a swimming pool and he’s a loser “who can only afford a crummy one bedroom apartment.” During a nice conversation she says “I was just thinking…” and he says, “Well don’t think, all right! I can think for myself!”
He feels bad about it though so they fuck but then he leaves while she’s asleep with a note that just says “Sorry!” and goes to a batting cage with Skylord. He delivers his own Just How Badass Is He? speech in the form of a whine about not having a job:
“Tell me when you find an ad that says, ‘Wanted: Specialist in explosives, covert operations, must be experienced in 30 ways to kill a man with his bare hands.’”
Skylord says, “Yeah, funny thing, I just saw an ad like that.”
“You did?” Matt asks, like a dummy.
“LAPD,” Skylord says, and Matt laughs.
Remember, the Rodney King beating was in March, 1991. At this moment even Chuck Norris’s son would acknowledge the LAPD were a bunch of maniacs. Judging by the movies he makes now I doubt he’d admit it anymore.
The back of the DEATH RING VHS box calls the cast “A BRAND NEW GENERATION OF ACTION STARS.” They didn’t exactly end up taking over for the previous generation, though. McQueen kept going for about 9 more years. Films include NEW YORK COP (1993) with Mira Sorvino, FIREPOWER (1993) with Gary Daniels, INDECENT BEHAVIOR II (1994) with Shannon Tweed and James Brolin, and RED LINE (1995) with Dom DeLuise and Michael Madsen. In 1996 he reunited with Swayze (plus Joe Estevez) for SQUANDERERS, a.k.a. MONEY TO BURN. Like his dad he was into car racing, but retired after serious injury in 2006. Apparently he’s no longer interested in acting, and even turned down reprising his KARATE KID character Dutch in Cobra Kai season 2.
Swayze has continued to be prolific in movies and television, but not specifically action (exceptions including FORCED TO KILL  and THE NIGHT CREW ). He’s been in episodes of Renegade, Walker, Texas Ranger, The X-Files, Karen Sisco, Longmire and the new Magnum P.I., and was a regular as the tattooed man on Carnivale.
DEATH RING was Norris’ fifth movie as the lead, and he did indeed keep doing action movies, though not high profile ones. They include DRAGON FURY II and DELTA FORCE ONE: THE LOST PATROL. In 2000 he started directing episodes of Walker, Texas Ranger, and the following year made his feature directing debut with THE RAGE WITHIN, where he stars with Fred Williamson and Andrew Divoff. Since then, I don’t think you’ll be surprised to hear, he’s directed Christian movies: the golf/disease/Jesus drama BIRDIE & BOGEY (2004), the Dean Cain movie I AM… GABRIEL (2012), MISSION AIR (2014), the anti-United Nations, pro-gun AMERIGEDDON (2016), and THE END OF DAYS: GLOBAL CATASTROPHE. His filmography actually seems like a pretty good illustration of Christian entertainment’s slide from inspiring family stories to paranoid apocalyptic reactionary horse shit.
I’m not saying I liked him in DEATH RING, but I liked him better when he was in DEATH RING. This is pretty funny. (Now available in better-than-it-was-ever-supposed-to-look blu-ray from Kino Lorber. No extras, though.)