Back when we had to really scrounge for every scrap of information about Hong Kong action films, one of the places one had to turn was Ric Meyers’ monthly article in Inside Kungfu magazine. This was back before Meyer lost his mind, or whatever the heck happened to him and the quality of his work. Anyway, a subscription to Inside Kungfu meant you were going to learn a lot of other stuff too, like who Grandmaster Philip Holder was. It was somewhere in the pages of that magazine that I first stumbled across Kathy Long, a beautiful woman, with biceps to die for and a long string of martial arts accomplishments, tournament championships, and martial arts magazine cover appearances to her name. She wasn’t as active in movies as she was in the ring, but she quickly entered my pantheon of worship worthy American fighting femmes, right alongside Michele “The Mouse” Krasnoo, Karen Shepard, and of course, Cynthia Rothrock.
Shep and Cynthia had the benefit of having worked in Hong Kong in the 1980s, and even got to face off against each other in the action classic Righting Wrongs, before they came to America and appeared in an assortment of direct to video martial arts movies that, while not always terrible, paled in comparison to what the women had shown off in Hong Kong. Krasnoo and Long would have been right at home in Hong Kong but sadly never got the opportunity. Instead, The Mouse was saddled with supporting roles in films like Kickboxer 4: The Aggressor (God, I love her in that movie), though she did apparently have a blink and you’ll miss it appearance in the Ringo Lam/Chow Yun-fat gangland actioner Full Contact. I don’t remember seeing her in it, but I don’t mind taking another look). Kathy Long — the Princess of Pain — popped up in movies like Albert Pyun’s Knights and this, director Fritz Kiersch’s retelling of Clint Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter, only with bikers and more skintight black leather. She also did some high profile stunt doubling — you should see her in Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman outfit.
Many of the leading female fighters in Hong Kong’s “girls with guns” heyday were dancers or gymnasts by training, while the Americans who made the long flight over almost always come from a legitimate martial arts background — not that that matters, really, for film since we’ve seen time and time again that a great fighter in a poor director’s hands will crash and burn, while a non-fighter in the hands of a good action director can be made to look like, well, Michelle Yeoh or Moon Lee. They could bring the grace, and the action directors knew how to showcase the power of the American fighters without making them look like slow-footed lugs. It would have been great to see Long go toe-to-toe with the greats of that era, as she had the look and the background to make a formidable…well, she would have been a villain, undoubtedly. Only Cynthia Rothrock was allowed to be a hero.
But man, Long vs. Yukari Oshima or Michiko Nishiwaki, or Long vs. Rothrock for that matter, in the hands of a director like Sammo Hung or Yuen Kwai… anyway, it’s a case of the should-have-beens that never were, and I guess it’s too late now. Not because Long couldn’t still cut it — she could only stay retired from beating the shit out of people for so long, and in 2009 started fighting in MMA tournaments — but because the opponents and girls with guns movies just aren’t there anymore. That said, a fella who harbors a tendency to crush on bad-ass women can still hope to one day see Kathy Long throw down against Jiang Luxia.
Well, my boyish crush on Kathy Long notwithstanding — which might be charming instead of creepy, if I was still a boy — since she never made films in Hong Kong, all we have are her few American films. The Stranger paints a skintight black outfit onto Kathy Long as The Stranger and sends her to a tiny town in the middle of the American southwest. Like every tiny town in the middle of the American southwest that ever appeared in a B-movie, this one is lorded over by a group of bikers who ride in, Mongol Horde like, every now and again to demand tribute and drink a lot of beer. The Stranger apparently has some sort of problem with the bikers, which she expresses early in the film by breaking out some poorly choreographed martial arts fury and breaking their necks.
The town, including drunken but obviously redeemable sheriff Cole (Eric Pierpoint), doesn’t seem to have much of a reaction to the killings, and they are content to just let The Stranger sort of coast along, snapping necks if people piss her off. They don’t even pull a First Blood and ask her to leave. Some of the townspeople admire the fact that she cracked the necks of a couple of the local murderous scumbags, while others think that having a hot karate woman in black leather prowling around, killing bikers, is going to bring down the wrath of gang leader Angel (seasoned B movie and TV actor Andrew Divoff, looking like a creepy combination of Josh Brolin and Kevin Bacon). The Stranger puts that to the test, offing the occasional biker to lukewarm civic reaction. Thrown into the mix are a jealous harpy (Ginger Lynn), your standard issue feral child, and a plot that soon reveals that, though no one knows The Stranger, she has a mysterious past that involves the town and Angel’s bikers. Oh, and also, she looks a lot like Cole’s late wife, murdered by Angel’s gang some years before.
Fritz Kiersch once had the unenviable task of trying to convince audiences that James Spader could be a bad-ass (in Tuff Turf). Here, there’s no issue with trying to convince audiences that Kathy Long is a bad ass. The woman is all toned musclecrowned by a big ol’ head of frizzy blonde hair. Here, Kiersch’s task is convincing audiences that his leading lady bad ass is also an actress. In this task, he is, well, he was about as successful as he was at convincing me that James Spader was a bad-ass. Kathy cuts an impressive figure, but she’s not that great an actress (which is why she would have worked so well in Hong Kong). She’s doing her best Clint Eastwood, which means she’s at least limited for the most part to squinty-eyed stares and icy looks. But Clint was able to do that and still have it be good acting, thanks in no small part to an abundance of charisma that Long simply cannot match. She’s awkward and stilted, but to be fair, she’s no more awkward and stilted than the usual fighters-turned-thespians that populate American martial arts movies from the 1990s. She can deliver most of her lines pretty well, but when she has to summon up more anger or emotion, she doesn’t really pull it off.
She could salvage things with a good action performance, but Kiersch has no idea how to shoot a fight scene. Nor does Long have any choice opponents. I don’t understand why so many American martial arts movies did this. The same thing happened to Cynthia Rothrock in her first starring role in an American film, China O’Brien. They take an awesome fighter (or in the case of that movie, two, since Keith Cooke was pretty awesome too), plop her in small town America, then have her face off against a bunch of lumbering rednecks with no fighting skills at all. I guess I understand the hick town setting. It’s cheap to film in the desert. And I guess it wouldn’t be “realistic” to have a small southern town populated by a bunch of accomplished martial artists. Actually, no. You know what? Every town, no matter how shitty and small, always seems to have a strip mall with a karate school in it. Can’t there be an evil sensei in league with the local rednecks, so at least the Kathy Longs and Cynthia Rothrocks of the world have something to do other than kick fat rednecks in the face?
Not that I have much faith that, even if the town was being menaced by a Richard Norton (with who she would eventually pair up, in Under the Gun) or whoever, we would have gotten good fight scenes. Kathy Long has the right stuff, no doubt, but there’s a reason “action director” is something you work really hard to be good at. Long gets to throw a few good punches and delivers a handful of impressive roundhouse kicks, but for the most part, the people behind the camera don’t really seem to know what to do when it’s time for an action scene. The end result are a handful of showdowns that are as awkward and stilted as Long’s acting. Kathy Long could look a lot better in action than she does here.
For me, it’s impossible not to compare Long and Rothrock, and not just because they both did time beating up bikers and hicks. To be fair, I’ve seen a ton of Cynthia’s movies, but only Knights and The Stranger for Kathy. Rothrock and Long would appear together only once, in Honor and Glory, but the pairing was little more than a wasted opportunity (in fact, Long spends her brief fight scene clumsily locking up with Richard Norton). While there are similarities between the two women — they both ruled tournament fighting, they’re both blonde, they both beat up rednecks — Kathy is by far the more menacing looking fo the two. She’s more muscular, and she fights meaner fights (as much as I love Rothrock, I can’t see her throwing down in MMA fights. Cynthia, by contrast, is more adept at coy smiles and a playful attitude. She’s no less deadly, we all know, but she hides it a lot better than Long, who usually looks like she’s one second away from pounding your face in.
So, I guess much of this review sounds like a pile of negative. Thing is, I didn’t really dislike the movie. It’s no gem, but it’s serviceable direct-to-video action. That’s in part because Kathy Long just looks so damn awesome in it. But it’s also the sort of cheap, half-assed direct-to-video action film that littered the 1990s and provided so many hours of mild entertainment. B-movie comfort food, if you will. You might groan over this film being a remake of High Plains Drifter, but the screenplay by Gregory Poirier, while certainly not sparkling, gets the job done. The Stranger is the sort of movie that I can throw on and watch without really having to pay too much attention to and without being terribly disappointed in the end.
Sure, I really wish Kathy Long’s film career had amounted to more, and I wish that the few films she did star in had paired her with better opponents (why couldn’t she have gone to the small redneck town where Cynthia Rothrock and Keith Cooke lived?) and directors who were better at choreographing and shooting martial arts action (or any sort of action, for that matter). But this is what she got, a western-turned-biker movie dripping with lots of fake Ennio Morricone sound music and lots of shots of her in skintight black leather walking down dusty streets.
And that was enough for me. Kiersch may not handle the action well, but the rest of the film is professionally directed, decently paced, and competently acted. Long may not have Clint’s charisma, but she does have charisma, thanks in large part to her physical presence. I know you get tired of me complaining about movies that cast whisper-thin waifs as unstoppable killing machines, but seriously. Long is the perfect blend of sexy and strong and proves that you don’t have to chose one or the other. I wouldn’t recommend this movie to anyone who isn’t a hardened veteran of such films, but if you are such a person, then you’ll probably be able to roll with this movie as easily as I did and come out saying, “Eh, it was OK.”
Release Year: 1995 | Country: United States | Starring: Kathy Long, Andrew Divoff, Eric Pierpoint, Robin Lynn Heath, Ash Adams, Ginger Lynn Allen, David Anthony Marshall, Nils Allen Stewart, Danny Trejo, Faith Minton, Jeff Cadiente, Randy Vasquez, Billy Maddox, Robert Winley, Chris Pedersen | Screenplay: Gregory Poirier | Director: Fritz Kiersch | Cinematography: Christopher Walling | Music: Kevin Kiner | Producer: Donald P. Borchers