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Blackbelt (1992)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

BLACKBELT (1992)

Starring: Don "the Dragon" Wilson, Matthias Hues, Richard Beymer, Deirdre Imershein, Alan Blumenfeld

Written and Directed By: Charles Philip Moore

The Short Version

Roger Corman produces a chop socky flick!  There; you know what to expect now.

Acting is not it; but hey, the important people try.

Impressive list of fighters they’ve got; too bad most of them aren’t allowed to fight.

The psycho guy’s backstory is just plain creepy.

There’s a whole lot that’s wrong with Blackbelt, but plenty more to like for Golden Age action fans.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

VELVEETA MAC & CHEESE.

It’s cheap.  It’s not good for you.  You know this.  But you’ll enjoy it anyway.


Pairs Well With...

MOLSON ICE.

It’s cheap.  It’s not good for you.  You know this.  But you’ll enjoy it anyway.

“The broken nose is for the girl.  The vasectomy’s free.”


What?  You’ve never heard of Don “the Dragon” Wilson?  This can only mean two things.  One: you’re not a competitive kickboxing fan.  Two: you never trolled the action aisle of a video store back in the 1990s.  Pity, but hey; that’s what I’m here for!

See, I did troll the action aisles of video stores, and I watched late night Canadian cable to boot, so I am indeed familiar with the direct-to-video contributions of the lots-of-times-in-several-divisions former World Kickboxing Champion.  One flick I never did manage to catch, though, was Blackbelt… but now that it’s officially old enough to drink, a copy has finally been delivered into my hands.

Yes, this flick really is twenty-one years old.  Try not to think too hard about that.

Try not to think too hard about much of anything associated with Blackbelt, for that matter.  Trust me.  The movie’s more fun that way, and we like our movies to be fun, don’t we?

The overall construction of Blackbelt starts off seeming as though it was built from a Checklist O’ Cheez that should prove familiar to any fan of the Golden Age of Direct To Video Action Movies:

Martial arts champ that Big Hollywood skipped.  Check.

Said champ plays a cop who quit the force.  Check.  Bonus: he runs a dojo now.  Check.

Damsel in distress.  Duh.

Damsel in distress is a celebrity being threatened by a psycho stalker and hires champ as a bodyguard.  Check.

Damsel in distress has a bad attitude that’s initially very off putting.  Check.

Damsel in distress and champ end up in bed.  Duh.

Sounds simple enough so far?  Of course it does.  But wait!  There’s more!

It turns out that our celebrity damsel in distress – who happens to be a popular singer on the cusp of super stardom – isn’t just being stalked by a psycho, but she also happens to be two days away from being freed from a contract that makes a mobster her manager.  So we don’t just have one bad guy who’s out to get the girl; we’ve got two!

But hang on!  Blackbelt ain’t stoppin’ there!

Our psycho happens to be obsessed with the damsel in distress because she reminds him of his mother, with whom he had an incestuous relationship before things went haywire and she wound up dead and fingerless.

Ew.  Told you it got creepy.  Definitely effective, mind you, and certainly not something you see every day, but creepy.

So, does that sound like fun?

As it turns out, Blackbelt is way more fun than it has any right to be.  It’s cheap.  It’s cheesy.  It’s bad on so very many levels… but I like it anyway.  In fact, I’m pretty sure that I now have a new favorite Don “the Dragon” Wilson movie.

What makes this especially surprising – for me, anyway – is the fact that Blackbelt is very obviously holding back on the one thing that Golden Age action fans demand of their chop socky flicks above all else: chop socky.  Not that the movie doesn’t sell itself as a martial arts extravaganza, mind; in a rare and telling move, the opening credits crawl also happens to list the martial arts championship credentials of each member of the cast, and few names have blank spaces underneath.  (There are at least nine different fighting champions here.)  But while ‘Karate’ magazine was sufficiently impressed to declare that Blackbelt has “the greatest martial arts cast ever assembled,” the truth is that most of them don’t actually fight; not credibly, anyway.  Oh, there are combat scenes a-plenty, but they tend to be one-sided affairs: everyone just plays stupid until either our hero (Don “the Dragon” Wilson) or our psycho (ever-dependable Nordic bad guy Matthias Hues) comes by to kick and/or smack the living crap out them.  (Wilson vs. Hues proves to be a decent match, of course.  Beyond that, only “Bad” Brad Hefton is allowed to look like he presents a challenge to “the Dragon,” and even that ends too quickly.)  Fortunately, the predictable combat outcomes are mitigated by a film crew that knows how to showcase a fight even when it’s one-sided.  At that point, it’s like pro wrestling: sure, you know what’s going to happen and one guy usually looks like a stooge, but it’s fun to watch anyway.

As far as the acting is concerned...  Let’s be realistic here: no one is casting Don “the Dragon” Wilson because he’s the next Paul Newman, okay?  He’s here for his fists and his feet, not for his thespian prowess or screen charisma.  With that said, he’s got too much of the “nice guy” thing going to for his delivery to be called completely wooden, and hey, he’s trying, which is more than can be said for a lot of other direct to video action ‘talent.’  (I will even give him extra points for the sex scene.  He looks completely lost the entire time… but if we’re honest with ourselves, who out here in the real world wouldn’t be with a camera rolling, even if it’s all sim?)  The same holds true for most of the rest of the cast.  Sure, sometimes the acting reaches the point of being unintentionally comedic, but it works all the same, and no one actively stinks up the place.  Trust me; you’ve seen and put up with a whole lot worse.

Indeed, Blackbelt even manages to pull off a couple of standouts: Richard Beymer (just coming off his “Twin Peaks” run at the time) is wonderful as the sleazy mob boss, and is obviously having a good time with the role.  Meanwhile, Matthias Hues – yes, action fans, Matthias Hues – brings something to his psycho character that goes beyond being a gigantic Nordic dude with Fabio hair and fists of doom.  He also brings an edge… and a very interesting vulnerability to go along with it.  Sure, it starts with the writing, but Hues takes the script and runs with it.  Color me impressed.

And then there’s something else about Blackbelt that one doesn’t tend to expect to shine in a martial arts flick, especially one produced by Roger Corman: the music.  It’s actually pretty good, even if it is seven or eight years out of date based on the time of its release.  (The style of the song and of the video that’s being filmed for it within the movie are solid 1984/1985.  Not that a modern audience is likely to notice; it’ll seem “old” no matter what.)  This flick’s just full of surprises, isn’t it?

Maybe that’s what it all boils down to.  No one’s realistically coming into Blackbelt expecting much, and sure enough, it is cheap and it is reasonably predictable.  But at every turn, there’s something more.  When it’s bad, it doesn’t stink, and often as not the badness comes out the other side and turns out to be entertaining.  When it’s good, it’s really good.  And when it’s creepy and weird… surprisingly, that may be where it fares best of all in terms of straight-up moviemaking.  Who knew?

Bottom line, if you’re a fan of the direct to video side of the Golden Age of Action Movies, it’s worth your while to check out Blackbelt should you happen to run across it.  Yeah, it’s cheap and cheesy, but it’s the fun kind of cheap and cheesy.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, July, 2013


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