Naked Fist

I ended up owning Naked Fist through my desire to beat Teleport City head honcho Keith in our race to both own as many nude kickboxing movies as possible. I’m not doing too well in this race mind you; my ineptitude at competitiveness has never been more obvious than when, as soon as I got a copy of Naked Fist, I immediately ripped it and sent it to Keith. This despite knowing he has at least 3 nude kickboxing movies I don’t own. I guess my only hope now is that he doesn’t have TNT Jackson, Duel to the Death, Golden Ninja Warrior or any of those Alexander Lo Rei/Godfrey Ho flicks where Alice Tseng fights ninjas while taking a bath. I don’t hold out much hope though; this is Keith we’re talking about. Ninjas in the bath are his bread and butter.

Anyway, boneheaded altruism aside, I tracked down Naked Fist to an ancient British rental VHS on ebay. Martial arts movies (and especially martial arts movies featuring gore and nudity) traditionally had a tough time with British censors, but the tape dated back to the days before the infamous Video Recordings Act. Yes, here was a genuine artefact from the era of the Video Nasty. Back then, if certain MPs and right-wing newspapers were to be believed, all UK schoolchildren were being forced to watch Italian cannibal and zombie films all day before going out to rape kittens and butcher old age pensioners in the streets. So the tape was uncut as far as the sexy and laughably quaint gory bits were concerned. I ripped it to DVD-R and thought nothing more of it.

Some time later I noticed that one of the lower-rent satellite channels (the wonderfully named Movies4Men) was showing Naked Fist at around 3 in the morning. I surmised this would probably look a little better than the crusty, well-worn VHS tape so I recorded it, only to discover that much of the fighting and gore (and some of the naked kickboxing) had been trimmed from the broadcast version. Being possessed of too much free time and some DVD editing software obtained by entirely legal means, I decided to splice the cut scenes from the VHS rip into the TV version. Simple. And then I discovered a funny thing; the running time of this hybrid was actually longer than the ‘uncut’ version. Somewhere in the TV edit of Naked Fist were extra scenes, possibly added back in to pad out the running time. Which presumably made me the only person sad and obsessive enough to own this uber-version, this Naked Fist Redux. I couldn’t let that go without a review now could I?

The film (also known by the alternative title Firecracker) comes from the king of nude kickboxing movies, Filipino mogul Cirio H. Santiago. Through his partnership with Roger Corman, Santiago gave the world a slew of movies featuring naked kickboxing. Or naked shootouts. Or naked fist fights. Or naked gladiatorial combat. There weren’t many physical activities Cirio didn’t think could be improved by having the female participants naked, and for this I doff my metaphorical cap to him. By the time Naked Fist came around, Santiago had already used the plot at least once before, in TNT Jackson (where Playboy playmate Jeannie Bell has a topless kung fu scene) and would use it again in Angelfist (shampoo heiress Cat Sassoon being the scantily-clad fighter on that occasion).

One can’t accuse Naked Fist of not getting off to a flying start. The credits haven’t even rolled before we’re in the middle of a lethal underground martial arts tournament in a grungy Philippines gym. Chuck Donner (Darby Hinton) selects his opponent from a choice of three, then dispatches him quickly and bloodily, much to the delight of the crowd. Movies tend to suggest you have to be insanely wealthy to attend events like this, but surely the idle rich would feel a lot more comfortable somewhere that has less risk of getting dead martial artist on your one-off Dior dress. Among the baying throng is a photographer, Bonnie Carter, who is quickly hauled away by goons working for Erik Stoller (scriptwriter and Corman regular Ken Metcalfe). Erik is Chuck’s boss.

The opening credits make their appearance at last, with the title card NAKED FIST amusingly plastered over footage of firecrackers designed to evoke the original title of the movie. I assume the change came at the behest of Roger Corman, who rightly assumed that the target audience would be more easily drawn in by ‘naked’ and ‘fist.’ I know I was. All that’s missing is ‘Ninja.’ Bonnie’s disappearance leads to the arrival in town of her sister Suzanne (Jillian Kesner). She’s barely checked into her hotel when a couple of hoods break into her hotel and attack her. This is a scene that pops up in both TNT Jackson and Angelfist, though not quite so early in the film. Perhaps that’s why Suzanne isn’t yet quite as naked as Jeannie Bell or Cat Sassoon, since the producers are saving that for later. It’s never established (or even mentioned again) whether these two goons are working for the bad guys, or are just random robber/rapists. Maybe Fox News is right and this happens to all pretty white American women the second they arrive in a foreign country.

Suzanne visits the bar where her sister kept a room, and meets barman Pete (Peter Cooper) and his buddy Rey (Filipino action star Rey Malonzo). Almost as soon as Suzanne walks in another mass brawl breaks out. Suzanne, who is a karate teacher back home in America, wades in and is quickly accepted by Pete and Rey as “all right.” After the fight, Suzanne finds a photo of Chuck Donner on Bonnie’s camera. Though Rey warns her Chuck is bad news, she is determined to investigate. As a cover, Rey comes up with the idea that Suzanne is in town to study the Filipino stick fighting art of arnis. She goes to the venue of Erik and Chuck’s more legitimate martial arts tournaments, and claims she’s looking for work as a fighter to finance her visit. Erik doesn’t buy it but Suzanne holds her own in a bout against one of his top fighters. Still suspicious, Erik sends Chuck to seduce her and gain more information. Suzanne is clearly powerless to resist Chuck’s shaggy blonde perm and moustache, and goes along with it. She still finds time to visit an arnis training camp though, in a scene apparently scored by an eight year old during his first recorder recital.

Meanwhile, Erik is indulging in his other business, drugs. I assume it’s drugs anyway, it’s only ever referred to as ‘the stuff.’ Maybe it’s actually The Stuff, who knows? Erik’s contact for the buy is Griff, played by Cirio Santago stalwart Vic Diaz. Erik’s girl Malow (local star Chanda Romero) doesn’t like Griff, and thinks Erik would be better dealing directly with the suppliers. Erik apparently agrees, and secretly has Chuck’s men ambush Griff and make off with ‘the stuff.’ Erik then demands another shipment.

Suzanne meanwhile has been tailing Chuck, but is soon accosted by yet more thugs. These are actually police thugs though. Their boss Tony warns Suzanne to keep out of the investigation and let the authorities find out who killed her sister. Reluctantly she agrees. Tony is played by Tony Ferrer, who would be best known to local audiences as the Filipino answer to James Bond, a.k.a. Tony Falcon Agent X-44. No sooner has Suzanne got away from the cops, she gets grabbed again (Fox News must love this movie). This time it’s Griff who’s responsible. He threatens Suzanne with the deadly Philippines cobra unless she tells him why she’s really in town, but she’s able to fight off both the snake and a bunch more random stunt guys (at least one of whom was working for the police in the previous scene). Chuck arrives in time to see the end of the fight, and wonders if Suzanne has the killer instinct. So he takes her out to Erik’s island training camp, where the fighters train for the Arena of Death…

Having seen Erik’s set-up, Suzanne goes along to one of the death matches. She’s somewhat freaked out by what she sees and leaves. As she walks home a couple more local thugs take an interest, and after they kill the most incompetent cop in all of the Philippines, Susanne is forced to defend herself in an abandoned warehouse. Her dress gets ripped, so she takes it off, and spends some time running around in bra and panties. What’s cute about this scene (except for Jillian Kesner in skimpy underwear) is that she’s actually kind of badass, taunting the goons and doing that kung fu ‘come here and fight’ hand gesture at them. She takes out the first thug, but then the second guy attacks her with a sickle. Wouldn’t you know it; this manages to slice precisely through the front of her bra. Even though the garment stays pretty much where it is (as front-fastening bras are wont to do), Susanne takes it off anyway before finishing off the second thug. Maybe it was warm in there or something. The fight is only slightly marred by the score, which sounds like a B-52s cover band butchering “Rock Lobster” in their garage.

Later, Suzanne tails Griff & Chuck to the latest buy of ‘the stuff.’ She’s spotted by Erik’s girl Malow, who reveals she’s a cop deep undercover to bust Erik’s operation. First though they have to wait for Erik to get closer to the suppliers. After another staged theft of ‘the stuff,’ Erik demands the suppliers show up to one of his fights in person. The police find Bonnie’s body and Suzanne is required to identify it. She’s distraught and seeks comfort in the manly arms and shaggy hair of Chuck. After being startled by his cat, she allows him to take her to bed. In one of the oddest bits of foreplay I’ve ever seen in a movie, he cuts off her clothes with his kung fu knives. She reacts as pretty much any woman would; by punching him in the face. But then she returns the favour and has sex with him anyway.

Malow thinks Erik is getting suspicious so she meets Tony at the bar, and reveals the big exchange of ‘the stuff’ is that night. She also tells Tony that she’s discovered Chuck killed Bonnie. Unfortunately Suzanne overhears this, and calls Erik, demanding to fight in the Arena of Death that night. Meanwhile Erik’s men have followed Malow to the bar and in the ensuing shootout, both Malow and the serving girl are killed. I think the latter is supposed to be Rey’s girlfriend or sister or something, because he also heads for Erik’s gym to take revenge. Now that Erik has the suppliers of ‘the stuff’ in a face-to-face meeting, he orders Chuck to kill Griff. Once he’s dispatched, Chuck is challenged to meet Suzanne in the Arena. Just then the cops show up, so as Suzanne fights to avenge her sister, Tony and Rey take down Erik’s operation. Chuck doesn’t want to fight but Suzanne is adamant, and after he passes up several chances to kill her, she drives her arnis sticks into his incredibly fake prosthetic head.

Naked Fist is a terribly silly film, but for some reason I love it. Even after watching it about 5 times (and poring over bits of it frame-by-frame while trying to edit the damn thing together), I still find it ludicrously entertaining. Oh sure, a lot of it is amateurish, the acting is by and large terrible and the plot full of holes, but it’s never dull. There’s an action scene about once every ten minutes and these are fairly well done. They don’t hold a candle to what was being done in Hong Kong or Taiwan at the same time, but are still better than what you’d find in an American film of this vintage, or even subsequently. There’s very little of the ‘stand still while I kick you’ style later popularised by Jean-Claude Van Damme films, and it’s notable that Naked Fist predates the whole ‘underground martial arts tournament’ craze that exploded in the wake of Bloodsport.

I don’t know much about Jillian Kesner but apparently she did have a martial arts background. It’s hard to tell how much on the basis of this movie – certainly I’ve seen actresses with less training perform better in fights than Kesner does here – but apart from a few scenes where she’s doubled for acrobatic stuff, she appears to do most of the action herself. Darby Hinton also has some game, though Rey Malonzo is obviously the most talented fighter in the cast. But what of the scenes that only appeared in the TV edit, I hear you cry? Well, the first one takes place on the boat back from the island training camp. Chuck reveals to Suzanne that he doesn’t particularly like killing, but that’s pretty much all he can do. Later in the film, the other scene has Suzanne at Chuck’s apartment while he gets drunk, and tells her he wants to get out of the life of violence he’s in. Neither moment advances the plot much, but they are quite nice in terms of the sympathy they add to Chuck’s character. They also tie in to the climax of the movie, where Chuck doesn’t kill Suzanne when he has the chance. It’s a level of ambiguity one doesn’t expect from a cheap-ass Filipino action film.

Naked Fist has been MIA on DVD up until now, though I hear that Shout! Factory are planning to release it as part of their Roger Corman’s Cult Classics series (in a set with TNT Jackson no less). I’m very curious to see if this will feature these two scenes, either as an extra or in the movie itself. I’m also hoping for some background material on this fun little flick. Of course what I’d really like is a commentary by Jillian Kesner and Cirio Santiago, but sadly this is never to be. Kesner died young in 2007 from complications relating to leukaemia, while Santiago succumbed to lung cancer in 2008. So I guess the story of Naked Fist, and those curious disappearing scenes, may never be told.

Release Year: 1981 | Country: USA/Philippines | Starring: Jillian Kesner, Darby Hinton, Ken Metcalfe, Peter Cooper, Vic Diaz, Tony Ferrer, Don Gordon Bell, Rey Malonzo, Chanda Romero | Screenplay: Ken Metcalfe, Cirio H. Santiago, Alan Holzman | Director: Cirio H. Santiago | Cinematography: Benjamin L. Lobo, Ricardo Remias | Music: Nonong Buencamino, Susan Justin | Producers: Syed Kechik, Ernie Rojas, Cirio H. Santiago | Original title: Firecracker