Occasionally during this Ronny Yu series I will go on tangents about films that are not directed by Ronny Yu, but are related to the topic at hand. I’ve been meaning to revisit my maybe-favorite-Brandon-Lee movie RAPID FIRE for years, and thought it would fit in well here. To be honest I forgot that I already reviewed it in 2009, but that’s okay, this is a better review. It was worth a reboot.
Lee followed his movie debut in LEGACY OF RAGE with LASER MISSION (1989) and SHOWDOWN IN LITTLE TOKYO (1991), but it was the Yu film that attracted the atttention of producer Robert Lawrence (A KISS BEFORE DYING) and made him want to find a vehicle to turn Lee into a huge American action star.
As I referenced in the LEGACY OF RAGE review, the Metrograph theater did an interview with Ronny Yu where he said of Lee, “He was 19 when I met him. He was wearing a leather jacket, leather boots, riding a bike, he was very rebellious,” and “He said, ‘I hate martial arts. I hate it. And don’t talk, don’t even mention Bruce Lee to me!’”
Years later in RAPID FIRE (1992), Lee’s character Jake Lo is introduced wearing a leather jacket, leather boots, riding a bike, looking very rebellious. An art major at a college in L.A., he pulls up to campus during a demonstration for democracy in China. Seeing the protest signs causes him to flash back to the historic events at Tiananmen Square, where he saw his dad (Michael Chong, TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A.) killed by soldiers. According to RAPID FIRE’s entry in the AFI Catalog, “Lee was involved in the development of the story, and a key element that resonated with the actor was his character’s struggle to deal with his father’s death, which mirrored Lee’s personal life.”
You might think something like that would radicalize Jake. That’s what activist Paul Yang (Dustin Nguyen, THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS 2) assumes when he tries to get him involved in the movement. But it actually left him believing that “politics is bullshit,” and that his dad “died for nothing.” Though the movie quickly abandons the topic of China, Jake will eventually learn to stop fearing his dad’s shadow and take inspiration from his need to live and die for something he believed in.
And that seems to be what Lee did himself, having learned to embrace action stardom in the years since LEGACY OF RAGE. The movie opens with a classic doing-moves-in-front-of-a-black-void credit sequence like you might see in a Shaw Brothers production or a Sho Kosugi ninja movie. The fight scenes are outstanding and choreographed by Lee himself with stunt coordinator Jeff Imada (who I always think of as John Carpenter’s go-to stunt coordinator; I tend to forget he was also a Jeet Kune Do student under Dan Inosanto). There’s even one reference to Bruce Lee: a line where Ryan says, “Jake, why don’t you take these fists of fury of yours outside.” Two if you count a scene where Batman (which once crossed over with Green Hornet co-starring Bruce Lee as Kato) is playing on a TV.
Paul is so desperate to have Jake speak at a pro-democracy fundraising party that he uses a honeytrap to lure him there. Rosalyn (Brigitta Stenberg, RAIDERS OF THE SUN), the nude model for Jake’s figure drawing class, hits on him and invites him over to her place. But when she opens the door he walks into a big party where Paul (who seems to be her boyfriend) introduces him to donors as someone who was at Tiananmen Square and lost his dad. Not cool. Rosalyn offers him a drink as an apology and he goes upstairs to the bar just in time to witness a murder. One of the donors, Carl Chang (Michael Paul Chan, THIEF), happens to be a heroin kingpin, and he gets shot by his associate Antonio Serrano (Nick Mancuso, BLACK CHRISTMAS, UNDER SIEGE) over some drug dealer shit. Since Jake is standing right there when he does it, Serrano sends his men to kill him.
1) It kinda plays out like Jake is being set up for something, but no, he just has terrible luck!
2) I don’t think this movie means to smear the pro-democracy movement, but jesus!
Luckily we had that opening credits sequence to establish that Jake is the type of art major who knows how to kick. Turns out he also knows how to shoot guns. There aren’t many American movies that go more John Woo than this – mobsters spraying uzi fire through the party, shattering row after row of windows, knocking people into and through things. Jake does a flat out awesome move where he kicks through a banister to trip a guy coming down the stairs and flip him over it. Then they fight and he kicks the guy down a second flight of stairs, rolling him onto another guy.
There’s more than that, but the exclamation point is when he’s about to escape on his motorcycle but Serrano shoots at him, so he drives back into the art space, rams into a guy, carries him the long way through a glass case full of vases, then crashes through a window and skids out in the street, before finally being surrounded by cops and getting arrested.
How did he know how to do all that shit? Well, I’m not saying it makes sense, but we gotta assume he learned it from his old man, judging from the “Just How Badass Is This Guy’s Dad?” speech delivered by cops: “Father’s career army, deceased. Army intelligence. He was attached to the Beijing Embassy in ’89 when the shit went down. Medal of honor. Taught the martial arts twice a year at Langley. Wing Chun, kung fu, muay thai.”
In the interrogation (by an agent played by Basil Wallace – “Screwface” from MARKED FOR DEATH) Jake expresses disdain for cops, seems to be ignoring them to doodle, is actually making them a very accurate sketch of Serrano.
So all the sudden Jake is a high value witness for the FBI. They fly him to a safe house in Chicago, and he’s there for about two minutes before two agents working for the mob kill a third agent and proudly announce that they’re going to blame it on Jake. This is my favorite scene in the movie because of Jake’s improvised close quarters self defense techniques, especially when he pulls out a kitchen drawer and tosses all the silverware into an agent’s face.
He repeatedly kicks a door into one guy’s head, swings the freezer door into the other one, and smoothly leaps through the narrow space above a kitchen counter – that’s a real Tony Jaa or David Belle type move.
When the guy starts shooting through cabinets, cereal flakes pour on Jake from above. Nice detail. Eventually he gets into the bathroom, kicks out the window, but can’t climb out it because there are metal bars on the outside. He kicks those and they budge but don’t entirely break off, so he reaches through and grabs a two-pronged skewer hanging from a barbecue on the fire escape. The agent shoots out the door knob and runs through the door in time to get stabbed, and then Jake kicks him into the metal bars, which finally break. Action storytelling.
(Unfortunately there’s a balcony, he doesn’t plummet to his death, but it’s still good shit.)
Meanwhile, there’s an ATF task force in town led by Mace Ryan (Powers Boothe, SUDDEN DEATH) who work out of a bowling alley just trying to bust Serrano’s boss Tau (Tzi Ma, ROBOCOP 2) who is “one of the world’s largest producers of heroin” and, in the grand tradition of movies that are awesome, is established to be a great stickfighter in the Thailand-set opening. Karla Withers (Kate Hodge, LEATHERFACE: TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE III, THE HIDDEN II) hears about the feds having this witness in town, so Ryan sends her to check it out, and she clashes with Jake as he’s escaping. Later Ryan saves Jake from an ambush and shoots a car that’s chasing him, causing it to catch on fire, crash, and flip. With the flames visible behind them, Ryan introduces himself by saying, “Hiya. Name’s Ryan. Lieutenant Mace Ryan.”
Jake still “could give a shit” about helping them bust Tau, but is forced to stick with Ryan so he doesn’t get killed by the mob or the cops that work for the mob or the cops that don’t work for the mob but believe the mob’s lie that he’s a cop killer.
Together they confront Agent Frank Stuart (Raymond J. Barry, CHRISTMAS EVIL, YEAR OF THE DRAGON), who set Jake up, and force him to wear a wire while pretending to hand Jake over to Serrano’s men at their restaurant. The plan goes south and there’s a big shootout with Jake in the middle kicking people. Probly the most famous part is where a guy comes behind him and tries to choke him with a rifle, and he does a back flip over the guy, taking the rifle. But the most ambitious move is when he shoulder blocks a column so hard it causes an upper floor to collapse on a guy. That’s pretty much a kaiju move!
My favorite attack on Jake is when he gets rammed with a library-style wheeled ladder behind the bar (the first thing we saw in an earlier scene at the restaurant during business hours). I’m not sure if I’ve seen a wheeled ladder POV shot anywhere else.
Still, Jake is the last man standing, and there’s something very satisfying about him dragging bloodied Serrano out to the agents who just put him in danger and then colossally failed to protect him or arrest their guy. “Nice plan, Lieutenant. Real smooth.”
When Ryan makes good on his end of the deal it becomes clear that he had a tape that exonerated Jake before he made him risk his life. He defends that betrayal by saying, “Look, this is a war, kid.” So even though pretty soon they’re gonna be buddies, I think it’s fair to say that the point of view of RAPID FIRE is that you can’t trust cops unless maybe it’s a nice lady that you’re sleeping with.
Yes, Jake ends up sleeping with Withers, and their sex scene is intercut with Al Leong disguised as a cop throwing a ninja star into Serrano’s holding cell. So this movie has it all.
After the sex Ryan shows up at Withers’ place, so Jake has to hide in another room, and he hears Ryan talking candidly about how much he likes him. That convinces him to stay in town and help bust Tau – the final stage of the buddy arc, as well as the getting-past-your-daddy-issues theme.
A staple of this type of movie is the gimmicky drug front. For example, in SHOWDOWN IN LITTLE TOKYO there’s a brewery hiding drugs in beer. Here Tau has an industrial laundry facility and they hide heroin in the sheets. It works well for the action finale because Jake is able to hold onto a lift that carries two huge bags of laundry up to another floor, and then swing and crash through an office window. And he spins an empty shirt rack around to block during a fight, a very Jackie Chan-esque bit of choreography (as is a move Jake does jumping on and rolling across a chain link fence). He has a good one-on-one with Leong before chasing final boss Tau onto the roof, to the ground, and onto train tracks. We’ve seen the el throughout the movie and now we see how carefully they step over the tracks, signifying high voltage danger. Conveniently there are big metal poles with hooks laying around that they fight with. Tau barely dodges a moving train, hits the rails with the poles almost electrocuting himself, then gets hit by a second train. So it’s a good death.
Although director Dwight H. Little had done action before (GETTING EVEN , BLOODSTONE ), his late ‘80s triptych of HALLOWEEN 4: THE RETURN OF MICHAEL MYERS, an episode of Freddy’s Nightmares, and the Robert-Englund-starring PHANTOM OF THE OPERA got him pegged as a horror guy. When Steven Seagal wanted him to direct MARKED FOR DEATH, his usual studio Warner Brothers balked, so they took the movie to Fox. After that movie proved to be a success the studio hung on to Little to do their Brandon Lee vehicle.
The credits are a who’s who of action past, present and future. Cinematographer Ric Waite previously shot FREEBIE AND THE BEAN, 48 HRS., COBRA, MARKED FOR DEATH, OUT FOR JUSTICE, and ON DEADLY GROUND. Prolific henchmen Al Leong, Gerald Okamura, Gene LeBell and James Lew do some damage. Other stunt professionals include Roger Yuan, Chuck Zito, Branscombe Richmond and future director Ric Roman Waugh (SNITCH, SHOT CALLER, ANGEL HAS FALLEN, GREENLAND).
In keeping with Little’s horror past, there are some genre luminaries in there too. Composer Christopher Young did the classic HELLRAISER and HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II scores (not to mention THE DORM THAT DRIPPED BLOOD, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 2: FREDDY’S REVENGE, INVADERS FROM MARS, TRICK OR TREAT, THE FLY II, THE DARK HALF, TALES FROM THE HOOD, URBAN LEGEND, DRAG ME TO HELL, and THE EMPTY MAN, among others). Credited screenwriter Alan B. McElroy was held over from HALLOWEEN 4, and later created the WRONG TURN series. McElroy shares a story credit with Cindy Cirile, whose only other feature screenwriting credit is BLACK ROSES (and she was in ROCK ’N’ ROLL NIGHTMARE and THE JITTERS as an actress).
If IMDb is correct, there were also uncredited revisions by Paul Attanasio, who shortly thereafter would created Homicide: Life On the Street and write QUIZ SHOW.
Less than a year after the release of RAPID FIRE, Lee was killed while filming THE CROW. Though it’s obviously secondary to the human tragedy, action fans will always lament that the accident cut short what seemed to be a burgeoning career. In fact, Jonathan (THE PUNISHER) Hensleigh’s spec script SIMON SAYS was being reworked into RAPID FIRE 2, set to co-star Angela Bassett!
When things turned out the way they did, the script was rewritten again and became DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE. Obviously I’m happy that exists but damn, RAPID FIRE might’ve turned into a great action franchise.
I think most people consider THE CROW to be Lee’s best film, and maybe they’re right. It’s certainly the most unique and directorially distinct, with Alex Proyas’ stylized visuals, and Lee gets to go to extremes in emotion and behavior that his other movies didn’t allow. It impressed me as a twenty-something when it came out, and I still respect it, but the fantasy of a goth dude glibly slaughtering helpless one dimensional evil people creeps me out as I get older and the world gets uglier. More importantly, I think, I just have a preference for action movies that emphasize martial arts even if they include lots of guns and car crashes. RAPID FIRE fits well into the Seagal slot of well made, mid-sized studio action movies with a cool, rebellious lead using classical action formula to set up a bunch of entertaining violence. Good job to everyone involved. Whether or not it’s the best, it’s definitely a highlight.
Tomorrow: Ronny Yu returns to the ghost comedy and ups the ante with BLESS THIS HOUSE.
April 3rd, 2023 at 7:23 am
I love this movie. I remember seeing it twice in the theatres and needless to say, my DVD gets a regular spin every other year. Well paced, with great fight scenes (Brandon Vs Al Leong is still a keeper in my book) , Brandon especially charismatic and Nick Mancuso’s scenery-chewing mafioso particularly bonkers. And Powers Booth being very Powers Booth-y. Also had a bit of a crush on Kate Hodge which definitely helped in the repeat viewings.
Dwight H Little’s filmography, which for me amounts to 4 films I’ve seen is a strange one. He’s made this compulsively watchable Brandon Lee movie, what is still my favorite Seagal film, a fairly ok-ish Wesley Snipes thriller and a c-grade Indiana Jones knock off notable, for Indian Film watchers as being the ONLY Hollywood movie South Indian Superstar Rajini Kanth (he’s the Robot in, well…ROBOT) ever made, and for good reason.