When I was a kid, my uncle on my mom’s side was a weight lifter. Bear in mind that my uncle was not that much older than me, and so he fulfilled the dual role of uncle and older brother, with all the Indian burns and red bellies such a relationship demands. Having a weight lifter for an uncle meant several things. First, it meant that I was destined to get a pair of Zubaz for Christmas– the classic ones, with the turquoise, black, and white tiger stripes. Second, it meant that I was going to be leafing through bodybuilder and power lifting magazines. My grandparents house was stuffed to the gills with copies of Field and Stream, but as I was neither an avid hunter nor fisher, Field and Stream was even less interesting to me than the marathon sessions spent int he basement listening to records full of nothing but turkey calls. And so when I needed to pass the time doing something other than playing Nintendo, I would leaf through the weight lifter magazines which, for some reason, contained endless amusements for me — the best of which was an ad for some contraption or other probably mean to improve your curl form that boasted the legendary slogan, “It’ll kick your butt so you can go out and kick somebody else’s!”
Running a close second to that were photos of America’s newest female bodybuilding star and one of the focuses of the documentary Pumping Iron II, a woman by the name of Rachel McLish. I was a lad of a certain age, and so the sundry photos of Rachel McLish in skimpy workout wear and bikinis inspired in me a certain… fascination. She was a beautiful, beautiful woman, ripped and built but not huge, bulky, or overly manly — which is probably why she emerged as the poster woman for female fitness and weight lifting in publications that, admittedly, mostly catered to testosterone-heavy men. Or skinny little kids developing a refined taste for brunettes with kick-ass biceps. It’s a predilection which, while hardly being the be all of my superficial preferences in physical appearance, remains with me to this day. Nice biceps and a strong pair of shoulders — I can support these things, though probably not half so well as they could support me.
I was a small kid, both in stature and weight, and under my uncle’s well-meaning but sort of half-assed guidance (we are alike in many ways, he and I, and he was always more interested in faking a Russian weightlifting coach accent than he was in actually being a weightlifting coach), I would pull on those Zubaz and hit the weight bench. After all, I was going to have to bulk up if I was going to impress Rachel McLish when the Soviets finally nuked America and only she and I, completely unscathed by the destruction, survived. Unfortunately, I had a monstrous metabolism and a tendency to run pretty much endlessly, which kept me underweight well into my adult life. It was only when I got a desk job and discovered the joys of eating a whole box of Ho-Ho’s in a single sitting that I finally began to put on a little more bulk — though it turned out it wasn’t exactly the sort of bulk for which I’d previously been striving.
Anyway, images of Rachel McLish stayed with me, and it always seemed to me that she would have been a pretty awesome action movie star if only the 80s had been in any way friendly to any sort of action star other than giant white guys. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case, and women in American action films in that decade were largely relegated to the ranks of wives, girlfriends, and hostages. Only Linda Hamilton was allowed to do anything different. Rachel McLish looked too much like someone who could hand your ass to you without breaking a sweat, and it was an insecure time for action film men. Even though McLish wasn’t hyper-bulked or anything, she was still a damn solid human being, and I guess despite the fact that she fulfilled Hollywood’s requirement in regards to beauty, she was still just too scary. I mean, who were the leading ladies back then? Who you gonna take in a fight between Rachel McLish and Julia Roberts? Or Rachel McLish and James Spader? Oh, what I would have paid to see that movie. Anyway, the shunning of athletically built, muscular women reminds me of a cartoon somewhere in which a man and a woman are at the gym, and the dude is checking out some buff woman working out with free weights. “That’s so unattractive,” the man says. “I’d never want to date someone who could beat me up.” To which his female friend replies, “Uh, neither would I.”
So Rachel was relegated to the ranks of workout videos until the 1990s ushered in the golden era of straight to video action films. This was at a time when a lot of cult film fans were also discovering Hong Kong action movies, where women kicking ass and starring as the lead in action films was pretty common. With much less overhead, and with the musclebound action films of the 80s suddenly out of style, directors influenced perhaps by the fighting ladies of Hong Kong decided to start casting women as action heroes. Some of these had already made names for themselves as fighters and stuntwomen overseas, and many of them were accomplished real-life martial artists — Cynthia Rothrock being the queen. Although not a martial artist (good lord… now I’m dreaming about Rachel McLish vs. Michiko Nishiwaki), in 1992 rachel McLish finally got herself a role in an action movie — Aces: Iron Eagle III. But it was a supporting role, and in a movie that had more to do with jets than outright physical action — though McLish did spend most of the movie looking splendid in an Army green tank top. It wasn’t until the next year that she got to stand front and center in a movie that seemed to worship her biceps as much as I did.
Which brings us to director Albert Pyun. Ahh yes, him again. Pyun is a divisive man, to say the least. His films are frequently labeled by many as some of the worst made. I happen not to agree with this assertion. Sure, he’s made some pretty terrible films, but so has Steven Spielberg. So has Francis Ford Coppola. So has every filmmaker except maybe the freakishly consistent Martin Scorsese. Seriously, what’s up with that guy? Anyway, though Pyun has disappointed me plenty of times, by and large I am a defender of his work. He’s made a lot of films I quite enjoy — The Sword and the Sorcerer, Cyborg, Radioactive Dreams, Nemesis, to name some of my favorites — and when his films fail, they often fail in a way I find very interesting (Tales of an Ancient Empire being the most recent example). I know some find his pacing of films to be awkward and boring, but I find it, more times than not, to be awkward and sort of compelling. Different tastes, I guess, but the end result is that I don’t go into Albert Pyun movies with the same fear, trepidation, and horror as most people. I actually look forward to them. I even seek them out.
I don’t know Pyun personally, but I’m going to guess base don some of his films that he and I share at least some degree of taste when it comes to women with nice biceps. In 1993, he cast kickboxing dynamo Kathy Long (The Stranger) in his post-apocalyptic fight film Knights. The next year, he directed Kickboxer 4 and gave a decent supporting part to diminutive karate spitfite Michele “The Mouse” Krasnoo. In 1995, he made a loosely connected sequel to Nemesis, with the lead role being passed from a muscular guy to an even more muscular woman. Sue Price isn’t exactly my style, but it’s hard to argue with the fact that she looks like someone who could toss around a giant killer android. And then, in 1996, Pyun reached back into the muscle mags I’d peeked at as a kid and gave Rachel McLish a starring role in Ravenhawk, a movie that probably gets compared to Billie Jack a lot since any movie about Native Americans beating up white people gets compared to Billy Jack — even if, like Ravenhawk, it has a lot more to do with First Blood and, even more so, the Italian action film Thunder Warrior and its two sequels.
As a child, young Rhyia Shadowfeather witnesses her shaman mother and father murdered by a gang of white men who want to remove the Shadowfeathers, opponents to the proposed construction of a shoddy power plant on reservation land. The white guys include Mulder and Scully’s X-Files boss (Mitch Pileggi) and the undisputed king of playing smug pricks, William Atherton. They manage to pin the murders onto the little girl, claiming that she went ape shit during some sort of drug-addled ritual gone bad. Because the trauma of seeing her parents murdered has rendered her mute, she can’t really offer up much defense, and with the local government bought and paid for, she not only gets convicted but gets tried more or less as an adult, committed for life to the mental institute wing of the local women’s correctional facility. There, she doesn’t do much but dedicate herself to a psychotic work-out regiment, which eventually results in her growing up to be Rachel McLish. When a van transferring her to a new facility crashes, Rhyia is presumed dead but actually escapes the flames and begins a campaign of tracking down the murderers and getting a little revenge.
Albert Pyun almost always works with a low budget, which means he’s really learned how to frame the traditional low-rent settings of cheap films: deserts and old factories. In Ravenhawk, he really makes the most of the sprawling vistas of the American Southwest, including some pretty dramatic work around bridges and cliffs. At these two locations, he actually pulls off some pretty incredible stunts, including a fall off a cliff that seems to go forever — and is an actual stuntman doing an actual fall. It’s insane, and like the gigantic fall during the end of Die Hard, I can hardly even conceive of how they did it without killing the guy. The rest of the scenery is usually augmented by the form of Rachel McLish, who while not a great actress when it comes to delivering lines, is fantastic when it comes to looking pissed off and beating the crap out of people. Pyun gives her ample opportunity to engage in all manner of stuntwork and physical feats, and it’s little surprise how good she looks in action.
It also helps that she’s surrounded by one of the more talented casts Pyun has put together. Even though they’re plying their trade in a low budget Pyun action movie, no one seems to be half-assing it. Michael Pileggi is delightfully sleazy, playing very much against type back when his type was a guy in a suit who did little more than say, “Agent Mulder, this sounds crazy.” William Atherton is William Atherton, doing his William Athertony best to give the screen another in his long line of condescending pricks. The guy is just so good at it. The rest of the cast is pretty capable, including a gang of killers the white guys call in to kill McLish. John Enos shows up as a sympathetic special agent from the Bureau of Indian Affairs (I think) trying to put an end to all the killing. He’s pretty inconsequential, but he looks hot being inconsequential.
In the tradition of the best exploitation films, especially those in the small “pissed off Native Americans” subgenre, Pyun and screenwriter Kevin Elders (who wrote the three Iron Eagles movies) inject a host of social issues into the action, including here political corruption, environmental destruction, and racism against Native Americans. Maybe we can get Rachel McLish to take on the Keystone XL Pipeline. She can team up with Thunder and Keith Cooke’s character from China O’Brien. There’s very little subtlety in the writing. The evil guys are EVIL, with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. I don’t think you’d want to turn to a movie like Ravenhawk to learn a lot about Native American culture (I’m going to assume since the film was shot in Paige, Arizona and around the Big Rez that Rhyia Shadowfeather is supposed to be Navajo, though I can’t remember if it’s ever stated outright in the film), but it does try to shine a light on how frequently corporate interests benefit from screwing over the locals and how almost no attention is paid by the rest of the country to the things that go on within the confines of our sundry reservations. Of course, this is also an action exploitation film, so as with Mark Gregory in the Thunder Warrior films, the answer to all problems is to blow shit up, shoot suckers with a bow and arrow, and jump motorcycles over whatever obstacle happens to be convenient. And while Ravenhawk has the same sort of weird pacing that all Pyun films seem to have, it certainly doesn’t lag in the important departments of blowing shit up, killing suckers, and jumping motorcycles over things.
I wasn’t fearful of watching Ravenhawk they way some people are about tackling an Albert Pyun film, but I’ll also expect my expectations weren’t that high. I was surprised, then, by just how much I enjoyed the movie. It was great watching McLish in action, but the whole film was a pretty satisfying low-budget adventure. It’s a simple, streamlined plot that benefits from not getting hacked and rehacked during production the way some of Pyun’s films had to be due to budget and production issues. So it makes sense, and everything is paced pretty well. It’s a shame that McLish didn’t continue acting. Despite her stilted line delivery, she was built for the world of low-budget action and could have become a pretty impressive staple if she’d pursued it. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case, and while she remained active as an advocate for women’s fitness and strength training, Iron Eagles III and Ravenhawk remain her only feature films. Ah well, it is what it is. But good on ya, Rachel, and you too, Albert Pyun. Ravenhawk isn’t a movie that is going to convince a Pyun hater that he has talent, but if you are like me and have an easygoing ability to roll with Pyun’s peculiarities, Ravenhawk makes for a pretty pleasant tale of violent revenge and punching William Atherton in the face.
Release Year: 1996 | Country: United States | Starring: Rachel McLish, John Enos, William Atherton, Ed Lauter, Matt Clark, Michael Champion, Mitch Pileggi, Mitch Ryan, Nicholas Guest, John de Lancie, Bill Bird, Virginia Capers, John Fleck, Jerry Garcia, Randy Hall, Pato Hoffmann | Screenplay: Kevin Elders | Director: Albert Pyun | Cinematography: George Mooradian | Music: Johnny Harris | Producer: Ron Samuels