Monday, March 14, 2016

Retro Review, Special Fongsploitation Edition: KILLPOINT (1984) and LOW BLOW (1986)

(US - 1984)

Born in 1928, Chinese-born American actor Leo Fong was a late bloomer when he joined the post-Bruce Lee martial-arts parade, already in the vicinity of 50 when he starred in the first of a trio of Filipino actioners with 1976's ENFORCER FROM DEATH ROW. This was followed by 1978's BLIND RAGE (pushed as a Fred Williamson movie even though The Hammer only had a cameo) and 1980's THE LAST REUNION. All three films got drive-in and grindhouse play, but Fong was 56 by the time he tried to carve out a niche for himself in the US action market with 1984's KILLPOINT, the first of two failed attempts by longtime B-movie stalwarts Crown International to make Fongsploitation (© Marty McKee) happen with mainstream moviegoers. KILLPOINT didn't get a very wide release, but it managed to play in first-run multiplexes in major cities before hitting video stores (of course, courtesy of Vestron Video) and eventually reaching its intended audience on cable, where undemanding, channel-surfing insomniacs stumbled upon it at 2:30 am. Around since 1959, Crown knew how to play the game, and Fong was likely intended to be their version of two stoical Cannon stars in Charles Bronson and Sho Kosugi, However, Fong's inanimate, stonefaced screen presence was so wooden that he made Bronson look like talk-show Robin Williams by comparison.

KILLPOINT is very much a junk movie, but it's not without points of interest. Fong stars as Lt. James Long, a widower Riverside cop assigned to partner with ATF agent Bryant (Richard Roundtree) to investigate a series of mass shootings that have been traced to an military armory depot heist engineered by lunatic crime boss Joe Marks (Cameron Mitchell) and ruthless arms dealer Nighthawk (Stack Pierce). The story itself is pretty standard-issue and there's plenty of ineptitude on display, starting with clumsy dialogue like "Long? Isn't he the cop whose wife and child were raped and killed?" and too much screen time given to non-actors--and this is how they're billed--Captain Michael Farrell (as Long's captain) and Special Agent Larry Lunsford (as Bryant's supervisor), both mumbling their lines and looking like a deer in the headlights, and presumably brought on by the Riverside P.D., who served as technical advisors. But writer/director Frank Harris brings an admirably rough aesthetic to the proceedings. The extensive location shooting throughout Riverside in places like Chinese restaurants, neighborhood grocery stores, pawn shops, low-rent gyms, dive bars, and skeezy strip clubs, and the plethora of non-professional actors (a bunch of Riverside cops have small bits as well) bring an effectively--if accidentally--seedy, DIY, KILLING OF A CHINESE BOOKIE-esque milieu to the proceedings, and the scenes of street criminals buying guns from Nighthawk and promptly mowing down innocent people offers chilling, disturbing imagery that remains prescient with today's level of gun violence. I'm not implying that Harris is some kind of unsung auteur, but if a really slumming John Cassavetes made a crummy '80s action movie with an aging and borderline immobile kung-fu D-lister, it might've ended up looking a lot like KILLPOINT.

All hints at nihilistic artistry aside, KILLPOINT is first and foremost a scuzzy exploitation movie, and for that, look no further than Mitchell's insane performance as Marks: mumbling incessantly, yammering on about his poodle Sparky (and trying to get it to smoke), and quite possibly intoxicated, Mitchell's relentless scenery-chewing needs to be seen to be believed. Some of the cold, humorless Nighthawk's reactions to Marks' antics seem to be less character and more Pierce reacting to Mitchell's overacting (Pierce also has a great and possibly improvised bit where he's told to make a drink for Hope Holiday's screeching madam and forgoes the tongs to angrily put the ice and a lemon in the glass with his hands). SHAFT fans may be disappointed that second-billed Roundtree has little to do and exits the film about an hour in, but rest assured, it all ends up with a showdown at an abandoned factory (complete with a military guy rappelling down the side of the building for no reason whatsoever), and it's all propelled by an exceedingly mid '80s synthesizer/drum machine score and a catchy closing credits tune ("Too long! Livin' on the inside!"). KILLPOINT is unabashed trash, brutal and unrelentingly violent, but it's essential viewing for Cameron Mitchell fans and students of Fongsploitation. (R, 89 mins)

KILLPOINT newspaper ad making it look like a Richard Roundtree movie

(US - 1986)

A good chunk of KILLPOINT's cast and creative personnel--Leo Fong, Frank Harris, Harris' wife Diane Stevenett, Cameron Mitchell, Stack Pierce, and Hope Holiday--reunited for 1986's Fong-scripted LOW BLOW. Moving even less swiftly than he did in KILLPOINT, 58-year-old Fong at least had the good sense to make a number of LOW BLOW's laughs intentional, whether it's his character's beat-up '70s clunker or acquiescing to stereotypes about Chinese food and Asian drivers. Fong is Joe Wong, a ex-cop and broke-ass private eye with mounting bills who lucks into a job when rich industrialist John Templeton (early '60s heartthrob Troy Donahue, barely masking his contempt for the entire project) hires him to track down his missing daughter Karen (Patti Bowling). Karen has joined a religious cult run by Yarakunda (Mitchell), a blind, Jim Jones-type loon who wears a monk's robe and has a tiny Star of David tattoo on his face as well as a bindi on his forehead. Yarakunda is somewhat sincere in his beliefs, but the drugs and illegalities side of his operation is actually run by his "wife," a sadistic, manipulative ex-con named Karma (THE COLOR PURPLE's Akosua Busia). Unable to take on Yarakunda and Karma on his own, Wong and his perky secretary (Stevenett) demonstrate some of that old Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland "Let's put on a show!" moxie and hold a Toughman contest to assemble a worthy team of ass-kickers to raid the cult's compound and rescue Karen.

Threatening to break out into an actual comedy at any given moment, LOW BLOW is decidedly more lighthearted that the grim and ugly KILLPOINT, with set pieces so ridiculous that the humor has to be by design. That's really the only way to explain the scene where three bad guys barricade themselves in a Mercedes while Wong puts on some safety goggles and saws off the roof of the car to get to them. Or the opening scene, where Wong hears a robbery taking place at a diner down the block while he's in his second story office, then goes in SUDDEN IMPACT-style and blurts "Hey, is my ham sandwich ready?" before blowing the three scumbags away and declaring "Hey, forget the sandwich!" (which, needless to say, didn't become Leo Fong's "Go ahead, make my day"). Fong still can't act, but he's at least a lot more loose here than he was in KILLPOINT--he's at least trying to be a likable hero, and his effort is endearing. Mitchell looks like he's still nursing a KILLPOINT hangover, a glowering Donahue seems pissed off that he's even in it (was John Saxon out of their price range?), while Pierce plays a good guy who helps Wong assemble the team for the raid, and is rewarded with the character name "Corky," which doesn't send the same message as "Nighthawk." The standout in LOW BLOW however, is the gorgeous Busia, whose demented performance as Karma actually steals the ham honors from Mitchell, who's goofy but rather subdued throughout. Though she has no IMDb credits after 2007, Busia would stay busy in supporting roles and TV through the '90s. Born in 1966, she was briefly married to BOYZ N THE HOOD director John Singleton around the time she appeared in his 1997 film ROSEWOOD and she'd also co-write the script for Jonathan Demme's 1998 Toni Morrison adaptation BELOVED. Things didn't really pan out for Busia, for some reason. She never really got a career bump from her performance as Nettie in THE COLOR PURPLE despite making a big impression in one of its most memorable scenes, and though LOW BLOW was shot first but released second, it still had to be difficult for the young actress to wrap her head around exactly why her COLOR PURPLE co-stars Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover, and Oprah Winfrey were going on to acclaim and fame after working with Steven Spielberg while she was stuck cackling and munching on circus peanuts and straddling Cameron Mitchell in a Leo Fong movie produced by Crown International.

Also featuring a brief appearance by future Tae Bo guru Billy Blanks as a Yarakunda guard, LOW BLOW was the last of Crown's attempts to get mainstream America on the Fongsploitation bandwagon. He appeared in a few straight-to-video productions of dubious quality, usually directing himself (he reprised his Joe Wong character in LOW BLOW's 1990 semi-sequel BLOOD STREET and also resurrected his KILLPOINT character for 1993's SHOWDOWN). He had a supporting role in 1994's barely-released CAGE II, the sequel to the little-remembered Lou Ferrigno/Reb Brown cage-fighting non-hit, but he's really done nothing of note cinematically since LOW BLOW. Now 87, Fong is still active in martial-arts instruction and, at least according to IMDb, has two more Joe Wong movies with 2016 release dates, which I wouldn't anticipate seeing anytime soon, especially since one of them (HARD WAY HEROES) has a trailer that was posted to YouTube in 2010 and appears to have the production values of a homemade porno. (R, 85 mins)

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