As I said way back when in our first review of a Chor Yuen film, and likely in every subsequent review of a Chor Yuen film, discovering his body of work was one of the best cinematic things to happen to me in years. Since that day I first brought home the then newly released DVD of Killer Clans, I’ve made it a point to purchase any of the wuxia films he directed for the Shaw Brothers Studio. Needless to say, the films are not as surprising as they were during those heady first few dates, but I can say we’ve definitely settled down into a very comfortable and happy relationship. His films still prove immensely entertaining, and the more familiar I become with it, the more I notice the differences that occur from one film to the next within what I reckon we should refer to as Yuen’s Martial World.
It seems like there was a period in the history of Hong Kong’s Shaw Bros. Studio when Sir Run Run Shaw had a bright red rotary telephone stored under a cheese dome sitting atop his desk. Whenever a completely loony script landed on his desk, he would calmly pick up the phone and it would automatically dial a pre-programmed number which would be answered by Danny Lee, sitting across the studio, presumably wearing a tight polyester shirt adorned with some distasteful paisley pattern. How else can you explain the man’s appearance in a string of the studio’s first real forays into the world of crazy kungfu? Although the Shaws would produce no small number of truly batty kungfu films, especially during the late 70s and early 80s when the company was on its final leg, their early forays into left field all seemed to have the common denominator of young star Li Hsiu-hsien, soon to become Danny Lee.
It wouldn’t be difficult to interpret The Web of Death — the third in director Chor Yuen’s long cycle of films adapting contemporary popular wuxia novels — as something of a cold war parable. In it, a Martial World clan by the name of The Five Venoms Clan is in possession of a super-weapon so powerful that the clan’s leader has decreed that it should be put under wraps and hidden away for the good of the Martial World as a whole. That weapon, the Five Venom Spider, is revealed to us in the film’s opening minutes, and that’s a good thing; while definitely kind of neat in a cheeseball sort of way, the Five Venom Spider is not the kind of thing that could live up to an extended build-up. What it is, in fact, is a normal-sized tarantula that, when released from its ornate cage, glows green, emits the roar of a raging elephant, and then shoots a deadly, electrified web to the accompaniment of much billowing of smoke and flying of sparks. It’s a weapon that will be deployed to amusing effect throughout Web of Death, but which has the unfortunate side effect of saddling Chor with a conclusion in which a room full of fighters who have been established as the Martial World’s bravest and most accomplished cower away from a spider. But more about that later.
When innovative Shaw Bros. studio director Chor Yuen teamed up with martial arts novelist Lung Ku and the Shaw’s top kungfu film star, Ti Lung, they made beautiful music together. In 1977 the trio collaborated to create two of the best martial arts films ever made, Clans of Intrigue and Magic Blade. The success of the films, as well as their recognition as some of the greatest looking films to come from the martial arts genre in decades, made it a pretty simple decision to keep a good thing going. Less than a year after audiences were dazzled with the complexly tangled web of swordplay, sex, and suaveness that made up Clans of Intrigue, the trio got together for a sequel called Legend of the Bat. Legend of the Bat is about Ti Lung smirking and stabbing people and trying to unravel a mysterious plot chocked full of secret identities, ulterior motives, and booby trapped lairs. In other words, it’s more of the same, and the same is worth getting more of when it’s as cool as Clans of Intrigue.
There are certain films that become associated with one indelible image. For example, it’s hard to think of North by Northwest without conjuring a mental picture of Cary Grant being chased by that crop-duster, or of Singin’ in the Rain without immediately seeing Gene Kelly hanging off of that lamppost. In the case of the Filipino action film They Call Her… Cleopatra Wong, the image that invariably comes to mind – for those familiar with the film, at least – is that of comely star Marrie Lee brandishing an imposing looking, quadruple-barreled, sawed-off shotgun while dressed in a nun’s habit and wimple (thanks, El Santo).
Angelfist, aside from being a nonsensical title, was a video box cover that haunted my friends and I for many years. It was perched right up at the front entrance of Pick of the Flicks in Gainesville, Florida, and featured a blonde woman in an ugly leotard doing what has to be one of the most awkward high kicks I’ve ever seen, while holding her arms in this weird little curled-up T-Rex position. It was perhaps the single most ludicrous martial arts movie box cover pose I’d ever seen, at least until those Matrix movies made that completely silly looking Spiderman-meets-chicken jump/pose/kick inexplicably popular. I know guys did it in old kungfu films too, and it looked just as silly then, unless they happen to be wearing one of those silver wigs that is supposed to make you look like an old master even if you have the face of a guy in his twenties. Also, if you do that kick, the only way to get any power from such an awkward position is if a foley artist loops in the screech of a hawk or an eagle right as you jump
Anyway, as much as we pointed and laughed at Angelfist, which also triumphantly proclaimed “Starring Eight Billion Time American Karate Champion Cat Sassoon” or something to that effect, we never actually got around to renting it. At the time, we had so many old Shaw Bros. and Ocean Shores releases to work through that piddling around with a Roger Corman karate movie seemed rather a poor use of our time. Alas, I was so young and naive back then, and in my then recently discovered fervor for Hong Kong action cinema, I turned my nose up at so many films that… well… deserved to have noses turned up around them. But now I know better and willingly embrace such films. Thus, back when skinnyguy.com was still around and you could buy 50 crappy VHS action and kungfu films for like five bucks, I ended up with my very own copy of Angelfist, along with about a hundred Godfrey Ho/Thomas Tang/Joseph Lai ninja movies starring Richard Harrison. So whenever I complain to you about my financial woes, you can always respond by going, “Don’t you own copies of Ninja Phantom Heroes and Diamond Ninja Force?” And I will have to hang my head in shame, even if deep inside I am secretly proud of owning such movies.
Just as I was pleased that “post apocalyptic rollerskating movie” is not a description of a single film but of an entire genre, so too am I happy that “movies featuring nude kickboxing” yields expansive enough results that I can sit back and say, “You know, I think I’m going to become an expert in films that feature nude kickboxing.” Angelfist certainly doesn’t fail to deliver in the nude kickboxing arena, though it does fail to deliver in just about every aspect that a movie might otherwise strive to achieve. It joins a storied list of films that includes Angel of Destruction, Redline, Girls on the Run, Rolls Royce Baby, Naked Fist, and Kungfu Leung Strikes Emanuelle in my collection of nude kickboxing movies. Rolls Royce Baby in particular teaches us that there’s nothing appealing about watching a sleazy Eurotrash lounge lizard do full frontal nude katas. In general, nude karate is not a sport that lends itself to the male anatomy, though I don’t begrudge any man who chooses to make it his chosen form of exercise. If only they’d had the good sense to accompany his workout with a similar scene of Lina Romay, but she’s spending too much time in that movie standing on her head while nude for no good reason other than it never hurts to feature Lina Romay nude and standing on her head. I know there are plenty of other films out there featuring nude martial arts, and I intend, one by one and while dressed like Coffin Joe, to possess them all.
So it turns out the awkward looking blonde on the video box isn’t Cat Sassoon at all. We’ll get to the blonde later. It turns out Cat Sassoon is the daughter (in real life, that is) of shampoo empire tyrant Vidal Sassoon, who I assume achieved his high rank in society through liberal use of karate fighting thugs, and even now he forces hobos and prostitutes to fight in underground martial arts tournaments where the combat takes place in huge pools of mousse. Catya’s biography is one of a typical “live fast, die young” (she did both) Hollywood kid, and I’m not sure at what point she picked up the various karate championships the movie celebrates as being in her possession (actually, she picked them up when Roger Corman invented them and assigned them to her via movie poster). She seems to have spent most of her short life doing drugs and being a supermodel thanks, in large part, to the fact that she was the daughter of Vidal Sassoon and Beverly Adams. At some point, she parlayed her modeling and “daughter of Vidal Sassoon and Beverly Adams” gig into a movie career and appeared in the film Tuff Turf, the movie that had the unenviable task of making James Spader seem like a bad-ass. From there, it was straight to the bottom of the barrel, and before too long she found herself in The Philippines working in films by our main man, Cirio Santiago.
As far as authentic martial arts bad-assery, and despite the claims made on the cover of this movie, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Cat Sassoon was possibly one of the very worst of the many “next female martial arts superstars” that surfaced in the 80s and 90s with dubious claims about winning international tournaments and Vidal Sassoon Hair Mousse Kumites. She’s definitely not to be measured alongside actual bad-asses like Cynthia Rothrock and Karen Shepherd, both of whom made awesome movies in Hong Kong before coming back to America to make movies that were just awesomely bad. But they both knew their stuff, cut their teeth in Hong Kong, and had easy to verify martial arts careers. The waters get murky really quickly beyond them, though.
I’m ranking Sassoon — who must have been slapped on the back while eating lemons, thus freezing her face in an expression of pouty disgust (Joe Bob Briggs described her as having “the fist of an angel and the face of a fist”) — below Mimi Lesseos (who at least worked as pro wrestler before trying her hand at being the next direct-to-video female martial arts superstar), although Angelfist is remarkably better than anything Mimi Lesseos ever starred in. Probably above Maria Ford, who did time in her own bargain basement Filipino nude kickboxing movie, Angel of Destruction). It’s a hard call. And maybe above some of the women who tried to do martial arts in various Andy Sidaris T&A masterpieces. But whatever the case, when you’re locked in a battle for last with Maria Ford and former Playboy Playmates, well, you’re a long way from the surface. Plus, the trailer for Angel of Destruction has the narrator saying “She gets caught between a rock…and a hard place!” as they show Maria Ford kicking a rapist in the balls, so that might actually get the edge.
The claim is that she’s a “WKA North American Forms and Weapons champion,” but if this is true, the WKA doesn’t seem aware of it. Of course, I suppose Cirio Santiago could have created a different WKA than the World Kickboxing Association. Maybe it stands for “Women Kick Ass” or “Wonderfully Krappy Awfulness.” I think everyone who ever starred in a martial arts movie got to be the champion of some organization or tournament. In 1992, my friends and I shot about two minutes of an epic we were going to make about a Misfits-loving zombie who returns from the grave, is disillusioned by how punk went all hippie-crusty or metal, and so decides to destroy the world, with only the staff of a local Chinese restaurant to stop him. I think as a result of filming those two minutes, which consisted I think of footage of me jumping over a railing in a parking garage, I became de facto two time world champion in forms and combat for the Global Regional Karate Union of North Florida.
So if we’re going to drown at the bottom of the barrel with the late Cat Sassoon, we might as well do it in the company of another daft movie by Cirio Santiago. Of course, this movie, with its gratuitous martial arts tournament footage, is positively rational compared to some of his more feverish efforts, but that still leaves plenty of room for you to shake your head and say, “No! No. Wait, what?” The gist of the thing is this: while either vacationing or working as a photographer or participating in a karate tournament, a woman named Kristie (Sibel Birzag, who appeared in Angelfist and…oh, just Angelfist) catches an assassination on film. Although she phones the American embassy with news that one of their top generals has just been murdered by dudes with pantyhose on their head, and that she has photographic evidence, no one seems to consider it all that big a deal. Must be the same army as we saw in American Ninja, where the continuous slaughter of American soldiers at the hands of Filipino ninja hijackers didn’t really raise much of an eyebrow. So rather than go into the embassy or the police or anything, she goes and competes in a round or two at a karate tournament where all the women wear sexy leotards, halter tops, and thongs instead of actual martial arts clothing. She then has the film delivered not to the embassy or the police, but to a friend who works as a nude dancer at a club that specializes in the world’s least enthusiastic stripping. And then, of course, she gets murdered.
When the woman’s Los Angeles cop sister (Cat Sassoon) gets wind of the murder, she travels to the Philippines to solve the case and deal out plodding kungfu justice to those responsible, even though the local authorities use the “I know you’re a cop back in LA, but this is Manila. We do things different here,” shtick, which has never deterred a single rogue cop ever. It’s no more effective than “I just spent the entire morning getting my ass chewed out by the mayor,” or “your methods are too extreme, Inspector Nico!”
Along the way, Cat will enter the martial arts tournament in place of her sister, since movies have taught us that all gangsters and would-be revolutionaries are also shady martial arts tournament promoters. Ostensibly, this has something to do with getting close to…I don’t know. There were some Mexican drug dealers, or something, and some of the revolutionaries responsible for the murder are involved. Look, I sort of lost track, so I’m going to say that Cat enters the tournament so that she can keep land developers from knocking down the local community center in order to make room for a shopping mall. The primary purpose of the tournament really is to pad out the film’s running time with lots of really bad martial arts bouts and only slightly more interesting shower scenes in which Cat Sassoon proves that no amount of shampoo empire money can buy you decent martial arts skills or a decent pair of fake boobs in the early 1990s. I’m sure hers, which she shows often in this film, cost a lot of money, but that doesn’t stop them from looking like someone took a couple honeydews, wrapped them in those pointy little knit caps worn by Tibetans and hippies, then strapped them to Cat’s chest. Thhis is one of those extremely rare moments where the nudity comes and I say, “You know, why don’t we just put those away for now?”
Anyway, you better get used to them, because as I said, she pulls them out pretty often, God bless ‘er, including during a scene where she is attacked in her hotel room by a bunch of ninjas and has to fight them off while wearing nothing but a pair of panties. The two most striking things about this scene are how awful Cat’s martial arts are, and how no matter how much she tumbles and stumble around, her breasts remain completely motionless, like a couple of gyroscopes with a fake tan.
And she’s not alone. Joining her in her quest to showcase gratuitous boob shots and astoundingly awful karate fights is lovely Melissa Moore (and her much more natural breasts), a Versailles (that’s vur-sails to y’all — if the French didn’t want you to pronounce the “L’s” then they shouldn’t have put them in the word), Kentucky native who found herself slumming it in all sorts of movies like Hard to Die, Vampire Cop, and Sorority House Massacre 2, among many others. The martial arts she showcases in the film don’t look any less awkward. You know though, maybe it’s me. I mean, I’m no kungfu master, so maybe I just don’t know what I’m talking about. Maybe the proper fighting stance for the martial art they’re using is indeed to curl your arms up like an Incan ice mummy and mash them against your chest.
Whatever the case, I like Melissa regardless, even though her part consists mostly of sitting in the audience and watching Cat fight while nodding to herself. Well, when she’s not busy taking showers. And apparently someone else likes her too, because there’s a comic book about her, Melissa Moore, Bodyguard from Draculina Publishing. I’m not a big reader of comic books, so I don’t know too much about it. Somehow, I think that even if I was a big reader of comic books, I still wouldn’t know too much about it. Never the less, I’m still glad it exists.
So now that I’ve had some fun ribbing the ladies, let me say that I love that both of them are willing to give their all, however much that may be, for a movie like this. I mean, good or bad, Moore and Sassoon are in there, taking their lumps and starring in crummy kungfu films. I love ‘em both for it. Working the Corman-Santiago Manila circuit can’t be steak and onions, as stories from the likes of Walter Hill and Pam Grier attest to. And I don’t know about Melissa Moore, but Cat Sassoon certainly didn’t have to do anything more than sit back and live off the sudsy wealth of her family. Instead, she went to the Philippines and made low-budget action films. Good for her! And as for Moore — what can I say? I have a soft spot for Kentucky girls. I’d love to do a long interview with her or pay to have her write a book. As I’ve said many times before and will doubtless say as long as I keep reviewing crappy low budget Roger Corman productions shot in the Philippines, the stories behind these films are probably way more interesting than both the films themselves and the making of stories behind the standard Hollywood project. So if I poke fun at the ladies, it’s done out of love and with nothing but good nature.
Not so much, though, for the comedy relief male sidekick and the usual host of “You kicked their ass? But…but…you’re a woman!” and “That was amazing! Could you teach me some of that kungfu jazz?” shtick that invariably follows him and his Chess King wardrobe around. And since I’ve cracked jokes at the expense of poor Cat Sassoon, who wanted nothing more than to make shitty kungfu films and show us her fake boobs as often as possible (and don’t think I don’t appreciate her for that), I might as well mention that actor Michael Shaner looks like someone mashed Matthew Modine and John Malkovich together. There’s something not quite human about him, like he’s a clay-faced shape shifter doing its best to approximate what a human douchebag looks like. The big difference between Shaner and Sassoon is that by the end of the movie, Sassoon’s crappy acting, terrible martial arts, willingness to show off her weird fake boobs, and her overall strange appearance won me over. Heck, I’m ready to buy more Cat Sassoon action films on 50 cent VHS. Conversely, I want to punch Shaner in the face, even though I know it’s sculpted out of clay and butterscotch pudding, or whatever shape shifters are made of. You know what, Shaner? Your wardrobe isn’t even good enough to be Chess King.
Both Moore and Sassoon turn in nude kickboxing scenes, though I think Moore’s only counts half a point since it’s just a ripped shirt. But Sassoon goes full on, in just her lacy red panties, showing off her otherworldly fake boobs and accompanying fake tan that, coupled with the oily misting job they did on her to give her that fresh out of the shower appearance, makes her look like a particularly aggressive Nathan’s brand hot dog. This is without a doubt the second finest nude kickboxing scene I’ve witnessed (it’s going to be hard to beat the scene from Girls on the Run, though, because that’s a nude kickboxing scene directed by Cory Yuen Kwai). But Cat Sassoon holds nothing back. She throws all her energy into the scene, jumping around awkwardly, growling, yelling, and a few times doing spinning kicks while her face is obscured by a huge dollop of Vaseline or something on the lens.
I think they might have been trying to obscure the fact that a male stuntman with fake orange boobs attached to him was standing in for Sassoon. If that’s the case, oh man! What must that guy’s day have been like? One stuntman shows up and hears, “Well, you’re in the fight, and Cat Sassoon is going to be all greased up and naked, and she’s going to kick you then straddle your face.” And yeah, Cat may look a little weird, but whatever man, and if she’s nude and straddling my face then I still call that a good day at work. So the other stuntman is like, “This is gonna be an awesome day!” until he finds out that his job is to grease up, put on fake boobs and a pair of red lace panties, and be a stand-in for a nude kickboxing woman. And then his children will ask, “What did you do at work today, daddy?”
The rest of the cast seems comprised largely of Filipino kickboxing women who show up for matches and disappear again during the shower scenes (I’ve never seen a Filipino martial arts tournament locker room with so many white women in it). I guess most of these women have some actual martial arts background, but that doesn’t matter all that much since real life tournament martial arts are pretty boring to watch if you’re not an avid practitioner. They’re not any better here and are probably somewhat worse. There are also a couple rebels, and the usual assortment of white guys playing generals, diplomats, and other figures of authority. None of them are really worth mentioning. There is a guy named Mr. Carrion, which I suppose is a slightly better name than Mr. Rottin’ Guts McGee, but just barely.
This is one of the films, one of the many films, that force me to grapple with an assortment of moral questions related to passing judgment. Because this is a terrible, terrible movie, and I like it. It’s completely idiotic, and I like it. I have no justification for this adoration, and certainly I hesitate to tell others they should check it out. The acting is bad, the martial arts are worse, and the direction is nondescript. But like Cat Sassoon herself, somehow all the negatives add up to a decently dumb and entertaining 80 minutes. The action may indeed be bad, but there’s a lot of it. Like Melissa Moore and Cat Sassoon, all this movie wants to do is entertain you. And like its stars, the results are pretty feeble even if the effort is enthusiastic. Liking bad movies is pretty common. Liking bad martial arts movies is a much more, let’s say exclusive, calling. They’re still way easier to like than bad comedies and bad Steven Seagal films, but in a genre where bad stories and acting are glossed over in light of good action scenes, you better have good action scenes. When you don’t, there’s not much going on.
Except, you know, nude kickboxing.
Odd that movies like this are why, in the 1990s, I would write long screeds about how dreadful American martial arts movies are and how it’s a shame the US isn’t paying more attention to Jackie Chan and Jet Li. Now that the US is paying more attention to those guys — a bit too late for them to really deliver much that is worth paying attention to, sadly — I find that the crummy little low-budget productions from America and the Philippines have grown more attractive to me. And isn’t it funny that a number of the Hong Kong action stars of the 80s and 90s, once the action boom faded, sought to ply their trade in The Philippines. Somewhere in Hong Kong, the Chinese Roger Corman has Yuen Biao and Yukari Oshima in his office and is, no doubt, reaching for the bright red rotary dial phone that connects all producers in the world directly to the ghost of Cirio Santiago.
Release Year: 1993 | Country: Philippines and United States | Starring: Cat Sassoon, Melissa Moore, Michael Shaner, Sibel Birzag, Tony Carreon, John Crank, Roland Dantes, Sheila Lintan, Ken Metcalfe | Writer: Anthony Greene | Director: Cirio Santiago | Cinematographer: Joe Batac | Music: Stephen Cohn | Producer: Cirio Santiago and Roger Corman | Alternate Titles: Fatal Angel
If memory serves, the thing that first brought me to Teleport City was a Google search I did for the Hong Kong director Chor Yuen. At the time I was in the early stages of a now full-blown obsession with Chor, specifically with the adaptations of Ku Long’s wuxia novels that he filmed for Shaw Brothers during the late seventies and early eighties. Given that obsession, you might think — now that I’m living the dream and actually writing for Teleport City — I would have gotten around to covering one of those films. But, the truth is that I’ve been a little intimidated by the prospect. You see, I enjoy those films on such a pre-verbal level that I fear words will fail me in communicating just what it is that I love about them so much. Fortunately, Keith has already done a lot of the heavy lifting for me by covering some of Chor’s better known, more revered films like Clans of Intrigue and The Magic Blade, which affords me the opportunity to turn my attention to one of the lesser-known, perhaps not quite as accomplished, but none-the-less thoroughly enjoyable films from this chapter in his career. You see? Baby steps.
Since I started Teleport City many moons ago, I’ve gotten a lot of email from people claiming to be ninjas. One was so batshit insane that I had to break confidence and send it around to other people. I’ve since lost it, but maybe someone still has it. It’s the one where a single sentence goes on for a full page. There was also a guy who used to write all the time and tell me about how he was a member of a secret ninja society that guarded Washington, D.C. But my favorite email is probably from a ninja who believed beyond a shadow of a doubt that I was Jim Kelly. The first time he wrote me, telling me how he loved my movies and wanting to know if I had any merchandise for sale, I did my best to let him down politely and tell him I’m not Jim Kelly without making him feel stupid. Then a few months later he wrote me, addressing me as “Mr. Jim Kelly” again. This time he was asking me what I’d been up to and when I was going to make another movie. For this time, I just didn’t reply, figuring that would cause him to lose interest. It didn’t.
This is one of those DVDs that has been sitting around on my shelves for years, and it’s always on that list of “things I should just sit down and watch this week but then they never get watched.” Well, now that I’ve finally gotten around to it, my initial impression is that I shouldn’t have let it sit around for so long, but in a way I’m glad I did. I shouldn’t have let it sit around for so long because it was pretty fun; and I’m glad I let it sit around for so long, because watching it now, so long after the fact, it was like a visit from an old friend, provided that friend is “the way they used to make Hong Kong action films in the 80s and early 90s.” No CGI (well, no CGI fights), minimal wirework, actors who are better fighters than they are actors — man, I miss this stuff. Oh yeah, and Shannon Lee fights Benny Urquidez. In an exploding blimp.
While some video games really do have a rich enough mythology or back story to serve as a decent foundation for a movie (Resident Evil, Silent Hill — even if you don’t think the movies were good, the games at least provided enough meat for the framework), many others do not. Of course, that doesn’t stop them from being made into movies anyway. Such is the case with DOA. As best I can gather, DOA started life as a fighting video game, with the hook that most of the characters were hot cartoon chicks with tiny outfits and huge breasts, and you could somehow set the jiggle rate on their boobs. Then somehow the DOA games became beach volleyball games, with the attraction being the same. Someone thought this was about all you needed for a movie plot, and so thousands of years of intellectual evolution and technological innovation has finally resulted in our ability to watch a movie with the plot, “bikini models play volleyball and fight.”
DOA the movie was directed by Hong Kong action director Cory Yuen, who has a track record that boasts more high points than low and who specializes in turning otherwise non-athletic women into believable on-screen kungfu bad-asses. Under his tutelage, Cynthia Rothrock, Joyce Godenzi, Michelle Yeoh, and Shannon Lee were all transformed into believable martial arts powerhouses (OK, Rothrock was already a kungfu powerhouse; he just figured out how best to choreograph her). And while Hsu Chi, Karen Mok, and Vicky Zhao may not have been 100% believable as ass-kicking superwomen, that doesn’t change the fact that Yuen’s So Close was completely awesome. Yuen is also one of the few Hong Kong directors to have a big hit as a director in the United States, that hit being the Luc Besson-produced The Transporter starring Jason Statham, who has never fought in a bikini but is never the less appreciated around these parts for his inability to keep his shirt on.
When news that there was going to be a DOA movie produced first hit cult film fandom, there was a lot of eye-rolling and “yeah, whatever, man” reaction. But when it was further revealed that Cory Yuen would be director, ears (among other things) pricked up and a lot of action film fans were suddenly a lot more willing to give the film a try, even if the inevitable PG-13 rating meant it would be all tease. If anyone was going to be able to direct a dumb fun “bikini models play volleyball and fight” movie, it would be Cory Yuen. So people waited. Trailers played, and the reaction was tentatively positive after the initial negative reaction. Sure, the movie looked colossally goofy, but it also looked like it would sport high energy and be sort of fun. And then the release date came and went, and there was no movie. DOA vanished, bumped from the release schedule and shelved for any number of reasons, the most likely of which was probably, “Wow, this movie is awful.” Which is a shame. I mean, how bad could the film possibly be? They released Pluto Nash, for crying out loud, and Epic Movie. And those had to be worse than DOA . Right?
DOA eventually began to trickle out to theaters in other countries, though it still remained absent from American theaters, and fans of Cory Yuen, action movies, video games, and bikinis started looking to foreign DVD releases to see the movie. Was it worth the wait? Or the trouble to see it? Yes and no. DOA is pretty much exactly what you would expect it to be from the elements listed above. It is dumb. Extremely dumb. It is full of cheap titillation and gratuitous bikini ass shots. The script is paper thin, and what little story there is makes no sense anyway. Most of the cast doesn’t even seem to realize they are supposed to be acting in a movie. The fight choreography, involving almost no trained martial artists, is heavy on editing, camera trickery, and computer manipulation.
But Eric Roberts wears magic kungfu sunglasses. So…
The plot revolves around a group of women invited to compete in a semi-secret martial arts tournament where, of course, shady shenanigans are being engaged in behind the scenes. Enter the Dragon‘s plot has proved useful so many times, the writers of this film decided there was no reason not to dust it off once more. First we meet Katsumi, head of a ninja clan with a massive temple complex you would think someone in modern-day Japan would notice. Katsumi’s brother disappeared during the last tournament, presumed dead, and she is determined to uncover the truth behind his disappearance, even if it means violating the laws of her clan. She leaves for the tournament with two more ninjas in hot pursuit: the noble Hayabusa, who has a thing for Katsumi, and the vengeful Ayane, herself the former lover of Katsumi’s brother. Katsumi is played by the indescribable Devon Aoki, whose continued presence in the world of cinema is one of the great mysteries of the entertainment world. She’s a horrible actress, completely incapable of anything beyond a single blank expression and a single, monotone style of dialog delivery. OK, credit where credit is due. She’s actually much more animated than usual in Fast & Furious 2, but beyond that she handles herself with the seeming belief that to have any expression on her face would cause it to shatter. And yet, I don’t know. Over the years, I’ve sort of grown to appreciate her.
Accompanying her, Hayabusa is played by none other than Kane Kosugi, son of the legendary (to me, anyway) Sho Kosugi and a performer who makes Devon Aoki seem positively histrionic. Sho, of course, starred in many of the best ninja exploitation films of the 1980s and then went on to host Ninja Theater and release a ninja exercise video in which he was accompanied by scantily-clad Ninjettes. One gets the feeling that Sho probably appreciates DOA. Kane started his acting career alongside his dad, always playing the son of whatever ninja guy Sho was playing at the time. Kane never developed much in the way of an American acting career, but he clicked in Japan and managed to forge a pretty consistent string of jobs, including a role in a Japanese sentai television series (those superhero shows that get turned into the Power Rangers in the United states), a role in one of those crappy new Ultraman shows, and more recently one of the leads in Godzilla: Final Wars (even though the lead role should have gone to Godzilla). He does handle action scenes well, which is generally all he’s expected to do. As he gets older, he is looking a lot like his father, so much so that I’m beginning to wonder if Kane isn’t Sho Kosugi, his revitalized youth the result of some esoteric ninja ritual. Oh sure, you say, but what about all those times Sho and Kane appeared alongside one another? Well, yeah. Maybe — or maybe they just told us that was Kane Kosugi. Honestly, they could have hired any kid.
Anyway, Hayabusa is along for the ride, trying to convince Katsumi that she should return home while also helping her out with her investigation. Ayane is a little more hostile. Despite her love for Katsumi’s missing brother, Ayane holds clan law more important, and clan law dictates that when Katsumi abandoned her post as leader, she was marked for death. Ayane is played by Natassia Malthe, who has a string of cult film credits to her name but is probably most recognizable, to people who might recognize such an actress, for her role as Typhoid in Elektra or for her turn in the title role in the sequel to video game based movie Bloodrayne. I may be one of the few people in the world who would think, “Elektra and Bloodrayne II? Sounds good to me!”
Second on the list of DOA combatants is Tina Armstrong, played by Jamie Pressly of My Name is Earl fame. Pressly is pretty much the only person who showed up to this film with the intention of acting, and she steals the movie (no impressive feat, mind you) as a pro wrestler looking for the opportunity to prove she’s a genuine fighter. The film introduces us to her as she reclines aboard her yacht while wearing an American flag motif bikini, stirred out of her sunbathing just long enough to beat the snot out of a bunch of pirates (lead by none other than Robin Shou, former star of such movies as Mortal Kombat, and, umm, well, just that and Mortal Kombat II, really). When our founding fathers first set forth the basic premise of this great land of ours, I’m sure that they could conjure up no greater symbol of American awesomeness than a woman in an American flag motif bikini beating up pirates. OK, maybe Thomas Jefferson would disagree. But whatever. Fuckin’ Jefferson. Ask Ben Franklin. He’d be on board.
Tina’s pro-wrestling dad is also in the tournament, play by real-life pro wrestler (there’s something…ironic? about the phrase “real-life pro wrestler”) Kevin “Big Daddy Cool Diesel” Nash, who is dressed up more or less like Hulk Hogan in a somewhat lame gag I’m sure Nash found amusing. Since Kevin Nash’s job in this movie is to drink beer and go, “That’s my little girl!” he turns in the second best acting job after Pressly.
Finally there’s Holly Valance as Christie Allen, a posh thief who shows up to the tournament while on the run from the Hong Kong police. Or someone like that. Valance is definitely no actress. I think she was some sort of mid-level Aussie pop star before this movie, and it’s unlikely much will change after this movie. She’s attractive though, and just bad enough an actress to still be somewhat acceptable in a movie of this nature. And she does the thing where she throws a gun and a bra up into the air, then sticks her arm up so that her bra goes magically on just as she catches the gun, then whups the butt of the world’s most incompetent bunch of cops. I mean really, when a kungfu dame asks you to hand her a bra, do you really offer it to her as it dangles from the barrel of your gun? And I don’t mean that figurative gun. I mean the actual gun, the one she can now kick out of your hands. Everyone knows the flying bra technique is like the first thing they teach you at Shaolin Temple. Or if not at Shaolin Temple, it’s definitely the first thing you learn when you join the Black Fragon Fighting Society.
Along with a bunch of other fighters you will never care about (and most of whom just disappear at random throughout the movie with no explanation presented anywhere other than deleted scenes), the three ladies head to the island fortress lorded over by brilliant mastermind and DOA tournament manager Eric Roberts. Yes, folks, Eric Roberts, looking like a dude who would hang around the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame a lot, telling young kids about what a genius Jimmy Page was. In a feat of casting not rivaled since the days when Black Belt Jones cast Scatman Crothers as a karate master, crummy movie mainstay Eric Roberts is the lord of DOA, and with the help of his nerdy assistant Weatherby, Roberts aims to use the DOA tournament as a way to inject the world’s best fighters with nanotech robots that will harvest their genetic information and make it downloadable to a pair of sunglasses which will then instill the wearer with nigh invincible kungfu prowess.
Seriously, man, that’s the plot. All Eric Roberts needs to do for his nefarious scheme to work is, 1) capture each of the best fighters in the DOA tournament, 2) strap them into his gigantic info downloading machine, and 3) manage to keep a clunky pair of sunglasses on his face while fighting. And the end result of all that effort is that you will be a slightly better fighter than most other people. On the grand scale of nefarious schemes, this one ranks pretty close to the “moronic” end of the bell curve. I mean, how is being a marginally better kungfu guy than most other kungfu guys going prove profitable to anyone other than, say, a guy in the Ultimate Fighting Championship? And then, you have to get the ref to allow you to wear sunglasses while you’re fighting. And it’s not like Eric Roberts put a sports band or anything on those glasses, so they will eventually just fall off. But it doesn’t matter anyway, because we’re a few centuries away from the era when being good at kungfu guaranteed global supremacy. You remember when the world was ruled by kungfu guys, right?
Complicating Roberts’ already goofy plan is the fact that the original DOA founder’s daughter, Helena, is an aspiring DOA combatant herself and is beginning to suspect Roberts is up to something her father wouldn’t have approved of. Oh, and there’s Katsumi’s missing brother. In between that nonsense and all the awful dialog are a whole bunch of choppy fights of varying quality, a game of volleyball, and well, that’s pretty much it. DOA has absolutely no surprises to offer even the most easily surprised viewer. But does that mean this movie is as awful as it sounds? Not actually.
The script, such as it is, comes to us courtesy of a trio of writers who actually have, if not a respectable track record writing good action films, then at least a modest record writing halfways decent action films. J.F. Lawton scripted two of the better Steven Seagal films (as odd as that statement may seem to some), Under Seige and Under Seige II, as well as the cult film spoof Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death. His big gig, however (besides writing Pretty Woman, but what does that have to do with us?), was as a regular writer for the goofy television series VIP, in which a group of models (I really liked Natalie Raitano) run a private investigation service. And when you realize that was one of Lawton’s former jobs, the entire look and feel of DOA makes perfect, predictable sense. With a few tweaks here and there, this really could pass as a VIP movie, right down to the three-letter title. Lawton worked on more serious action films like The Hunted starring Joan Chen and Christopher Lambert fighting ninjas, and he worked on goofier action movies, like the Damon Wayans superhero spoof misfire Blankman. So you can pretty much see where the script for DOA came from.
Script contributors Seth and Adam Gross were writers for Bill Nye, the Science Guy. I guess they came up with Eric Roberts’ crazy science scheme, although I think the sheer goofiness of it all makes it more of a Beakman thing, really.
I’m also guessing that producer Paul W.S. Anderson — who I like to mix up all the time with Wes Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson — had a pretty heavy hand when it came to both the script and the direction. Anderson is divisive writer, producer, and director whose sole purpose in life is to make as many Resident Evil movies as possible. I actually like more of his stuff than I don’t, though when I hate his movies (both Aliens vs. Predators), I really hate his movies. Still, I enjoyed a lot of his movies: Event Horizon, the first Mortal Kombat (but definitely not the second), those Death Race remakes, even the Resident Evil movies. I think he had the idea for this movie when he was rewatching Mortal Kombat 2 (making him the only person in the world who ever rewatched Mortal Kombat 2) and got to the clumsy mud fight between two women in the rain and thought to himself, “This should be an entire movie.”
Cory Yuen’s direction is a little uninspired compared to other efforts, though he puts his craft to good use in filming the ladies (Yuen has previous experience with cheesecake kungfu thanks to his turn in the director’s seat of Women on the Run, which features some rather interesting, um, kung-nude). DOA lacks the slick polish of So Close, though Yuen is still adept at making cheap films look flashy. Even though the cinematography may be lacking, he misses no opportunity to randomly cut to a shot of someone’s ass or cleavage, so he’s not totally off his game here. And while Yuen is used to making non-martial artists look like martial artists, he really has his work cut out for him in this movie. Aoki and Valance seem to possess almost no athletic ability whatsoever, and so to pass them off as fighters, Yuen relies on gravity-defying wirework and jumpy editing, as well as a dollop of CGI. He does the most he can with what little he has, but no one is going to be mistaking these gals for legitimate fighters.
Jamie Pressly fares better largely because she has a pretty athletic build and looks like she really could deliver some punches and kicks and make you feel them. There’s a reason why she’s the one out of all these women who went on to have the biggest acting career (well, if you consider a cameo on Entourage to be a big career). She’s adept at both the job of acting and the job of looking believable in the fight scenes. Kane Kosugi gets to have one fight scene all to himself, which ends up being the only fight scene that looks anything like vintage Cory Yuen, since this is a guy who knows martial arts fighting a bunch of stuntmen. But even though this fight is pretty good, the award for best fight scene has to go to the one between Valance and Sarah Carter, who plays Helena. And that’s because that fight is between two fighters in bikinis. On the beach. In the rain. In slow motion. Cory Yuen knows how to keep it classy, though to be fair, he did also give us the “Jason Statham topless in oil” fight scene in The Transporter, so there is something to be said for his equal opportunity nature. A shame Kane Kosugi wasn’t game for a similar scene. Did you see him climbing Mount Midoriyama in the rain on Ninja Warrior? Surely they could have worked something like that into here.
I can’t speak to the sexism of the games, because I have never played them. Given that they have breast jiggle settings however, I could make an educated guess that most of the fans are not the same gender as the one whose D-cup physics are being tweaked. As for the sexism in this movie — eh, I would not argue in its defense. It is, after all, a movie about bikini models in a fighting tournament. That in itself is not particularly controversial. You know we here at Teleport City avidly promote the unclothing of all people who are willing. But Yuen’s camera has a Jess Franco-like tendency to dwell on rear ends and pelvic areas, although unlike Franco’s, Yuen’s are at least partially clothed. There’s a creepy dissecting vibe to shots like this that could have been defused if he’d been as willing to leer at the men. I know he’s willing to do this. Like I said, this is the guy who could not wait to get Jason Statham out of a shirt. He’s also the man that gave the world Billy Chow fighting in his tighty-whities, and I feel like he’s probably given us a bare-assed Sammo Hung or Yuen Biao at least once in his career. I’m not going to claim that I found the PG-13 sleaziness of this movie offensive; Lord knows I’ve rolled with infinitely worse, and this at the end of the day is really little more than a Frankie and Annette beach party movie with a fight-to-the-death tournament in it.
Yuen manages to wring a few other choice action sequences from a game but largely incapable cast. He also manages to film someone’s crotch framed by someone else’s crotch, which has to be some sort of first. His skill alone is what elevates this film above the level of, say, an Andy Sidaris action film. Aoki and purple-wig wearing Malthe have a decent wirefu match-up in a bamboo forest, which many people have pegged as a cheap knock-off of the bamboo forest fight in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, even though it has more in common with the same type of scene as presented in Andrew Lau’s Stormriders. The finale against a super-powered Eric Roberts (who’s acting suggests that if you asked him today, he might not even be aware of the fact that he ever even appeared in this film) isn’t exactly solid fight choreography, but it’s still funny and exciting because, well hell, it’s Eric Roberts. What the hell is even going on? And by this point, Yuen has resorted to his trademark jettisoning of any and all semblances of logic or reality, and believe me when I say that semblances of logic and reality are the last thing a movie like this needs.
Release Year: 2006 | Country: United States | Starring: Jaime Pressly, Holly Valance, Sarah Carter, Devon Aoki, Natassia Malthe, Eric Roberts, Matthew Marsden, Kevin Nash, Collin Chou, Kane Kosugi, Steve Howey | Screenplay: J.F. Lawton, Adam Gross, Seth Gross | Director: Corey Yuen Kwai | Producer: Paul W.S. Anderson and about 20 other guys | Music: Junkie XL