Needless to say, a lot of what I stumbled on was deeply, abidingly terrible. Lone Wolf McQuaid was pretty good, but Code of Silence was abysmal. Delta Force II and III were both excellent fun, My Lucky Stars and Black Eagle not so much. Just as one has to sift through a lot of dirt to find a sparkling diamond, so I had to wade through the effluent of my local video store in order to stumble upon the following, which to varying degrees have remained memorable and enjoyable, even as my film tastes have refined in general and mostly moved on from martial arts, although I cannot begin to tell you how much I enjoyed The Raid and Ong Bak in recent years – they took me right back.
The word “masterpiece” in the title of this post might feel absurd – we are not talking about Enter the Dragon, Project A or Once Upon A Time in China here – but we are talking about thrilling, memorable, under-the-radar entertainment and that has its place too. For each of this half dozen unheralded punch-fests I’ve included a clip and a link for you to pick up a copy if you are so inclined. I can’t guarantee that you won’t experience buyer’s remorse, but my hope is that you will have a bit of fun.
1. The Perfect Weapon
“Jeff Speakman is…..The Perfect Weapon”. This was pretty much what you got from any of these sorts of films back then. Steven Seagal is……..Marked For Death, and so forth. Said Jeff Speakman was (and as far as I am aware, still is) a masterful exponent of Kenpo Karate and was therefore slotted into a cookie-cutter story of seeking revenge on the local organised crime syndicate who kill his mentor. What elevates this (or at least made it memorable) is Speakman’s unquestionable ability. What he lacks in acting charisma (or ability – an all-too predictable hazard with these performers) he more than makes up for with fight-scene presence.
Adept with sticks or bare hands, Speakman has an appealing everyman quality, playing his scenes fairly straight, neither po-faced nor over-blown. One excellent fight scene (see below) begins with the almost Shakespearean dialogue exchange of, “why don’t you go home before you get hurt?”, “I wonder if I could kick your ass?”. Beautiful. The whole film is on YouTube, so feel free to check the whole thing out here.
2. Mission of Justice
Much like The Perfect Weapon, this was the sort of title that went with the, “Jeff Wincott is on a…..Mission of Justice” approach. Jeff Wincott himself has a fair few straight dramatic roles on his CV (TV-wise he has cropped up in Sons of Anarchy, 24, The Wire and NCIS) and in fact the title of this film isn’t pertaining to a mission by the protagonist. Rather, there is a quasi-vigilante group, called The Mission of Justice, which Jeff must infiltrate, in order to find out what they are really up to.
There are a couple of really great sequences, including Brigitte Neilsen’s henchman going up against a boxer to see whose skills reign and most memorably the sequence below, where Wincott must make it through “The Gauntlet” in order to show that he is fit to join the ranks of the eponymous Mission. It is very easy to be snooty about this sort of thing and decry it as derivative or tedious, but there is much to enjoy here. Chainsaws, hammers, metal bars and a final fight against the big, meatheaded henchman. You can grab a copy from Amazon right here (“Out of uniform, out of control”!), should you be unable to fight the temptation.
3. Drive (no, not that one)
Long before Brett Ratner coupled a wise-cracking African-American with a lively martial artist and similarly well before Winding Refn decided to name his moody thriller “Drive”, Steve Wang directed this utterly outstanding piece of martial arts entertainment, about a souped up, cybernetically enhanced hitman trying to break free. The titular “Drive” refers to Mark Dacascos’ heart, which has been tinkered with to make him an unstoppable fighting machine, a convenient excuse for the sort of mayhem shown below, to which The Matrix surely owes some sort of debt.
As always, we get a thrilling opening sequence to grab our attention, regular bursts of action and violence to keep us hooked and a ridiculous finale which pits our hero against an even more enhanced antagonist, with the nasty villain increasingly turning up the dial to add more juice to the trench coated fighter. There is the usual flurry of wire work, but the skill and charisma of Mark Dacascos should not be overlooked. Despite fairly well-regarded work in Crying Freeman and Brotherhood of the Wolf and a recurring role in the recent Hawaii-Five-O reboot (set in his home state), Dacascos has never really crossed over into the mainstream, which is a shame as he possesses good screen presence and a compelling fighting style. You can savour the entire film right here, or just enjoy a few choice punch-ups below. And yes, that is indeed the late, great Brittany Murphy.
4. Rapid Fire
Brandon Lee was all set, just like his father had been, to successfully cross over. He had worked through films like Legacy of Rage, Showdown in Little Tokyo and this, before getting cast in The Crow, which showcased his genuine acting talent alongside his action credentials. Then a freak on-set accident ended his life and we are left to ponder what might have been.
His martial arts credentials are top-drawer. He clearly learned and inherited a great deal from his father, especially the successful melding of oriental martial arts with Western-style boxing. His fight sequences in Showdown in Little Tokyo show athleticism and believability and clearly paved the way for this, his first US-produced starring role. Rapid Fire itself is (narratively) a little by-the-numbers but that is no reason to write it off. Most martial arts films are, their modest narratives deliberately designed to provide an undemanding link between the fight sequences. Lee stars as Jake Lo, a student who witnesses a murder and gets caught up with warring gangs and corrupt government officials. The clip below showcases Lee’s fighting style and skills really well, even if layering the Terminator soundtrack over the top is as baffling as it is wildly distracting. Pick up the film for less than a fiver here, if you prefer.
5. Best of the Best
Eric Roberts! He was in The Dark Knight! And The Expendables! And this years much-anticipated “Chicks Dig Gay Guys”. Apparently, he’s pretty hot on his karate as well, featuring here as a member of a US team that heads to Korea to take on their best set. Any film that features Eric Roberts fighting his exceptionally skilled opponent with one arm strapped to his side, with Christopher Penn (he was in Reservoir Dogs! And True Romance! And Beethoven’s 2nd) cheering him on and “voice of Darth Vader” James Earl Jones coaching the team to glorious, honourable defeat must be worth a few minutes of your time.
In all seriousness, the fight sequences are excellently staged, there is enough back story to help us care about the outcome and the pace ticks along nicely. Phillip Rhee, playing team leader Tommy Lee, has real ability but sadly never broke out into the wider film world (Best of the Best 2 and 3 followed the predictable law of diminishing returns – like I said, I have seen a lot of these sorts of films). The excellent final fight between Tommy Lee and his nemesis Dae Han Park (Simon Rhee, who also turned up in Showdown in Little Tokyo) is a little let down by the absurdity of putting the (notional) villain in an eye patch – how precisely is he supposed to gauge depth exactly? But you can enjoy it below or click through here for the whole film.
6. AWOL (aka Lionheart)
Everyone knows a reasonable amount about Jean Claude Van Damme. No Retreat, No Surrender and Black Eagle got him noticed, Kickboxer and Bloodsport established him as a star in the making, then came the DTV phase, with this, Death Warrant and Double Impact, before he got all theatrical with his releases – most notably Universal Soldier, Hard Target and Timecop. After a little time in the limelight he dropped back to DTV again, but he has retained a reasonable profile all the while, mostly from adverts played with a nod and a wink or the weirdly meta JCVD.
He has always managed to keep himself busy and certainly back in those early days his charisma and athleticism (especially his trademark sideways splits) marked him out for attention. Any number of his earlier, lesser-known films could have been included in this list, but for sheer fun, AWOL gets the nod. When his brother is badly hurt in a drug deal gone wrong, JCVD goes AWOL from the French foreign legion and sets off to avenge (which he can’t) and then earn money to provide for his brother’s family through the underground fight scene. Essentially, we have a quick bit of plot as a convenient excuse for fight after fight, each very different (squash court against big beardy guy, drained swimming pool vs athletic guy in unitard, circle of cars against Scottish guy in a kilt), before the big final rumble against a meathook known only as Attila. As always, it looks like JCVD is down and out, then something stirs him into his second wind. In essence, although the budget that blessed Universal Soldier and Timecop isn’t there, this is JCVD at the height of his physical powers and the film is all the more enjoyable for it.