Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Cult Classics Revisited: BLOODFIST (1989)

(US/Philippines - 1989)

Directed by Terence H. Winkless.  Written by Robert King.  Cast: Don "The Dragon" Wilson, Rob Kaman, Billy Blanks, Kris Aguilar, Michael Shaner, Riley Bowman, Joe Mari Avellana, Marilyn Bautista, Kenneth Peerless, Vic Diaz, Ned Hourani. (R, 86 mins)

For the last 40 or more years, Roger Corman's keen instincts as a producer/moneymaker have always been quick to predict a trend or hop on one as soon as possible.  From the women-in-prison classics of the early '70s to the car chase movies of the late '70s to the ALIEN, STAR WARS, and CONAN ripoffs of the early '80s, no one in Hollywood knew how to make a buck quicker or cheaper than Corman.  So when kickboxing movies entered the mainstream with Jean Claude Van Damme in 1988's BLOODSPORT and 1989's KICKBOXER, it was inevitable that Corman would quickly unveil his own kickboxing opus. 

BLOODFIST, starring three-time WKO light heavyweight world champ Don "The Dragon" Wilson, opened in the fall of 1989 and became one of the biggest successes of Corman's Concorde Pictures.  Which is not to imply that it was a blockbuster, but rather, it actually played two weeks instead of just one.  Several months later, BLOODFIST proved to be hugely popular in video stores, so it was a certainty that Wilson would return for BLOODFIST II (1990).  Seven additional sequels followed, six starring Wilson, and zero of which were actual sequels.  After BLOODFIST II, the films had no connection other than Wilson in the lead role--as a different character in each film--and BLOODFIST in the title.  1992's BLOODFIST III: FORCED TO FIGHT might've made it into a few theaters, but after that, they all went straight-to-video:  BLOODFIST IV: DIE TRYING (also 1992); BLOODFIST V: HUMAN TARGET (1994); BLOODFIST VI: GROUND ZERO (1995); BLOODFIST VII: MANHUNT (also 1995); and BLOODFIST VIII: TRAINED TO KILL (1996).  Wilson sat out the most recent entry, the 2005 straight-to-DVD reboot BLOODFIST 2050, but there's no reason to believe that's the end of the franchise.  The series proved extremely popular with fans and profitable for Corman, even when parts III to VIII were disconnected, stand-alone Don "The Dragon" Wilson vehicles with the BLOODFIST title tacked on.  Wilson's output has slowed considerably in the last decade (he's 57 now and hasn't been in a movie since 2007), but he had quite a video store following throughout the '90s and headlined in the vicinity of 30 low-budget actioners in the decade after BLOODFIST, including several different franchises that ran simultaneously with BLOODFIST.  In addition to his work for Corman, he also made three RING OF FIRE's and two CYBER-TRACKERS for the action-crazed madmen at PM Entertainment, and starred in the first of two BLACK BELT's for Corman, plus such video store fixtures as FUTUREKICK, RED SUN RISING, NIGHT HUNTER, and VIRTUAL COMBAT.  PM Entertainment even gave Wilson his own Chuck Norris/SIDEKICKS ripoff, playing himself in the family-oriented martial arts comedy MAGIC KID, about a young kickboxer whose hero is...you guessed it...Don "The Dragon" Wilson!   In short, he never became a household name like a Stallone or a Schwarzenegger, or even a Van Damme (well, except in the MAGIC KID's house), but you couldn't walk into a Blockbuster in the 1990s without seeing at least one recent Don "The Dragon" Wilson flick on the New Release wall, and it all started with BLOODFIST.

The plot is pretty threadbare:  L.A.-based gym owner and former fighter Jake Raye (Wilson) heads to Manila when his half-brother Mike (Ned Hourani) has died under mysterious circumstances. Through circumstances best described as "plot convenience," Jake meets Kwong (Joe Mari Avellana), an eccentric trainer who takes him under his wing to prepare him for the Red Fist, a fight-to-the-death kickboxing tournament that looks like the Kumite restaged in the gym of a condemned high school.  Kwong believes that Mike's murderer is one of the fighters in the tournament.  While fast-moving and with lots of scenes of bloodied guys beating the shit out of each other, BLOODFIST looks budget-starved even by the standards of Philippines-shot Corman productions.  But where BLOODFIST no doubt scored with kickboxing fans was the cred it establishes with the all-star cast of kickboxing and martial arts figures:   karate champ and future Tae Bo fitness king Billy Blanks kicked off a brief but busy straight-to-video acting career with his work here as ruthless fighter Black Rose.  There's also kickboxing champs Rob Kaman and Kris Aguilar as other tournament fighters/possible murder suspects.

Billy Blanks, Don "The Dragon" Wilson, and Rob Kaman in a BLOODFIST publicity shot

Van Damme had Donald "Ogre from REVENGE OF THE NERDS" Gibb as his hard-living American sidekick in BLOODSPORT, so of course Wilson also gets a wacky pal in BLOODFIST in the form of the obnoxious Baby Davies (Michael Shaner), a con-man/party animal who's also in the tournament and may as well be named Dead Meat.  Jake also hooks up with Baby's sister Nancy (Riley Bowman), thus allowing director Terence H. Winkless to meet Corman's required topless-shot quota.  Winkless, a co-writer on the 1981 classic THE HOWLING, made the mutant cockroach thriller THE NEST for Corman a year earlier and would continue to be a journeyman on the Corman assembly line for several years to come, with such B fare as CORPORATE AFFAIRS, THE BERLIN CONSPIRACY and one of the 17 remakes of NOT OF THIS EARTH, in addition to work away from Corman, helming a number of episodes of MIGHTY MORPHIN POWER RANGERS, and shows like the USA Network's PACIFIC BLUE and TNN's 18 WHEELS OF JUSTICE.  He's not exactly an auteur, but he obviously demonstrates the kind of efficient professionalism that Corman wanted.  The New World Corman of the '70s was about making money, but also about shepherding directing talent like Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard, Jonathan Demme, and so on.  The Concorde Corman of the '80s was mainly about making a profit, and his stock company of directors had capable craftspersons like Winkless, Rodman Flender, Jim Wynorski, Katt Shea, Kristine Peterson, and Larry Brand--people who could take the script and get it in the can on time and on budget--but no one from this period of Corman's career really broke out into the big time except for Luis Llosa (who went on make such films as SNIPER, THE SPECIALIST, and ANACONDA) and Carl Franklin (who left Corman and made ONE FALSE MOVE, DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS, HIGH CRIMES, and OUT OF TIME).  Winkless does the best with what he's got.  It's not a particularly good-looking movie, but it gets the job done (and has a surprising twist ending, albeit with an awkwardly bizarre reveal), and has that uniquely grungy, cheap Filipino action vibe to it throughout (plus a supporting role for Vic Diaz, as required by Filipino law).   Wilson isn't the most magnetic leading man, though he did get better with the superior follow-up BLOODFIST II.

Joe Mari Avellana as Mr. Miyagi.  Er, I mean, Kwong.

Still, BLOODFIST was an important film for Corman, Concorde, Wilson, video stores, and the entire straight-to-VHS business model of the 1990s.  BLOODSPORT, and perhaps even 1986's NO RETREAT, NO SURRENDER might've started the kickboxing genre, but the success of BLOODFIST on video really started a flood of low-to-no-budget kickboxing movies, much like BASIC INSTINCT instigated a wave of unrated erotic thrillers.  As the drive-ins faded away, these types of films simply migrated over to video store shelves.  It was a unique era that produced franchises and stars of its own who still amassed tons of fans without the benefit of a big-screen national rollout, and it gave fading stars and second/third-tier actors a place to call their own.  The big studios maybe didn't want them, but that didn't mean they weren't in-demand or lacking a fan base.

Currently available on Netflix Instant

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