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Bloodfist (1989)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

BLOODFIST (1989)

Starring: Don "the Dragon" Wilson, Joe Mari Avellana, Billy Blanks, Kris Aguilar, Riley Bowman

Written By: Robert King Directed By: Terence H. Winkless

The Short Version

Behold the feature headline debut of Don “the Dragon” Wilson.

The story’s familiar; you’ve seen it done better and you’ve seen it done worse.

The talent of the fighters is clear, but the cameras and the director end up working against them.

A line of dialogue says it all about the pacing: “You know what this sport needs?  A shot clock.”

Chop socky fans need to see Bloodfist as a matter of course; it’s on the canon list.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

COLBY.

It works, but you know it’s holding the place of something else.


Pairs Well With...

HOUSE WHISKEY & COLA.

They’re substitutes for bigger names, but they work well enough.

“Oh, God – another American!”


It’s impossible to argue against the fact that, by volume, Roger Corman is the single most successful film producer in motion picture history.  How has he done it?  Usually by finding something that’s already worked and making a cheaper version of it that’s guaranteed to be profitable before it even officially plays for the first time.  So it should come as no surprise that when Jean-Claude Van Damme’s breakout flick, Bloodsport, hit it big in 1988, Corman and company were part of the legion of filmmakers who immediately set out to capitalize on it.

The result: Bloodfist, a starmaker in its own right for headliner Don “the Dragon” Wilson, and a cult classic and required canon stop for genre fans everywhere. 

Just remember: a movie doesn’t have to be great to be a classic.  It doesn’t even have to be all that original, for that matter.

The story of Bloodfist is one that any even mildly seasoned chop socky fan has seen dozens of times before, centered around a very familiar cast of characters.  Let’s do a quick trot around the room, shall we?

Our Hero is Jake Raye (Don “the Dragon” Wilson, Blackbelt), a mild-mannered American who has lots of fighting talent but who is content to just work at the gym he co-owns while giving the occasional self defense lesson to young kids.

He has a Cocky Brother who is Fighting in Asia named Michael (Ned Hourani, Fist of Glory), but given the fact that he’s been told to throw a fight and decides not to go through with it, the audience can be sure that he won’t live past the first ten minutes, which he doesn’t, courtesy of being ambushed in an alley by an unknown assailant who is obviously unhappy with Michael’s decision.  When Our Hero hears that his Cocky Brother has been murdered, he immediately packs up and heads for Asia – specifically, in this case, for the Philippines – in order to collect the remains and exact revenge.

Though in this case, Our Hero doesn’t learn the killer’s identity right away, he does discover that this person is associated with a fighting club called the Red Fist.  The only way to get close to the Red Fist and draw out the killer is, of course, to enter the local fighting tournament, which just happens to be coming up right after the amount of time it takes to get a few decent training montages going, courtesy of a helpful old sensei (Joe Mari Avellana, Rage).  Along the way, Our Hero meets a Loud, Goofy, but Likable American who is Also Entering the Tournament (Michael Shaner, The Expert), and acquires an Attractive Blonde Love Interest (Riley Bowman, in what is sadly her only major film credit), who in this case happens to be the other guy’s sister.

Think you’ve got it from here?

You’ve probably supposed that the tournament features a Reigning Champion who Prefers to Kill Opponents (Kris Aguilar, DNA), and at least One Other Fearsome Guy (Billy Blanks, Expect No Mercy).

If you can’t guess the highlights of the tournament order form there, you probably haven’t seen one of these before… or were, perhaps, too tired or too drunk to remember.  (It happens to the best of us.)  In any case, there, in a nutshell, is The Formula.

As for what lies beyond…

For reasons I won’t go into too much detail about here for the sake of spoiler avoidance, the villain situation ends up being a wash.  On the one hand, the viewer goes through the majority of Bloodfist without having the benefit of a clearly defined arch villain, but rather a small selection of assholes who are given relatively equal weight and only the tiniest bits of window dressing to mark them as Evil, or at least Bad News.  This can give the film a rather unsatisfying feel, especially during those portions that already run slow.  (Bloodfist clocks in at just 85 minutes, credits included, but it feels a lot longer.)  It turns out that there’s a very good reason for this approach that earns the positive mark of setting Bloodfist apart from many of its peers of similar formula, but while you’re sure to figure it out before the hero does, the realization probably won’t come before you’ve already started checking your watch.  Ergo, a wash.

The rest of the script fares about the same, playing well enough with the formula framework while stumbling around the details.  There’s a real attempt to give some extra dimension to at least a few of the primary characters, whether or not the actors playing them take advantage of it, but at the same time, at least twice as many again are barely given the courtesy of being left as cardboard cutouts, and even some of that good stuff tossed at the lucky ones ends up getting tossed aside.  The idea of naming a character (the goofy American fighter) “Baby” nets a single joke that falls flat and nothing else; it proves to be so inane that it quickly becomes a distraction.  Some of the dialogue is just plain atrocious – “He grew up in Vietnam.  He is a victim of napalm.  He takes revenge on the world by often killing opponents!” – but there are also occasional flashes of genuine brilliance, most notably when our hero finds that his brother was killed in Manila’s Chinatown (why yes, there are Chinatowns outside of North America), at which point he declares, “It’s Chinatown, Jake!”  (If you love classic cinema, you’ll understand why that line is beautiful; if you miss the reference, it does no harm, but I do suggest that you enlighten yourself by looking it up.)  Overall, the screenplay’s hit and miss, but considering how much attention the average fan of this genre really pays to the finer details of things like stories, that makes it plenty good enough, and besides, the gods in the machine are adept at cleaning up messy details and the shards of broken subplots.

Turning to the man of the hour, real world kickboxing champion Don “the Dragon” Wilson makes a fairly decent headline debut.  It’s easy to tell that he’s still finding his legs as an actor – the dramatic confidence and chops just aren’t there, though there are some glimmers accompanied by an overall very sincere effort – but one of the happy accidents of Bloodfist is that his character as written is not particularly sure of himself outside the ring of combat: a perfect situation for a freshman action star.  It therefore matters little when he stumbles through some of the drama; “the Dragon” makes a solid enough go of it to still be taken for a human being instead of a cutout.  Besides, it’s what he can say with his fists and his feet that’s really supposed to count in a flick like this, right?

Well, I’ve got good news and bad news.  The good news is that when it’s time to fight, Wilson delivers.  Any of the awkwardness that he shows outside of the ring is gone as soon as the time comes for combat; there, it’s his realm, he knows it, and he shows it.  Perhaps the biggest joke in all of Bloodfist comes from the fact that as written, Jake starts the film not knowing how to kickbox (he’s “just a regular” boxer); it’s easy to see that Wilson delights in letting go of that lead weight the moment the story allows, happy to show off for the camera and for the audience.  But therein lies the bad news, for while Wilson and many of his costars whose genuine fighting titles appear under their names during the opening credits – especially, in this case, Billy Blanks, who’s the only person here who might outshine Wilson in the ring sequences – can and do most certainly bring it, the director and the camera folks aren’t up to the task of showcasing it properly.  The talent present is sufficient to make enough of the movie look good anyway, but time and again, the fights are “off,” whether due to lousy camera angles, poor blocking, or shots where punches and kicks that clearly whiff are reacted to as though they’re the most devastating blows in the world.  (I know that many of the blows in film combat don’t really land, but the fight’s supposed to be choreographed and the camera’s supposed to be positioned so that the audience can be allowed to think that they do.)  It doesn’t happen all the time, but it does occur often enough to put a damper on the proceedings.

The pacing doesn’t do Bloodfist any favors, either.  The story moves forward at a speed most readily compared to the back end of a pub crawl, with languid dramatic scenes and far too much time between fights.  Worse, the central tournament doesn’t carry any sense of true progression.  It doesn’t feel “bigger” as the rounds move on, regardless of the story cues, and ultimately… well, you’ll see.

Back to the bright side, Riley Bowman easily provides the single best character performance in the movie, a feat that’s all the more incredible given that she’s playing what is usually a thankless token part.  But she grabs hold of that part and makes the most of it in a way that many of her costars should’ve taken note of and learned from, giving it a depth the surpasses what’s in the script and which in turn elevates those around her, especially our freshly minted hero.  It surprised me to see no other major credits attached to her name; given her efforts here, she certainly deserves the extra work.

At the end of the day, so, too, does Don “the Dragon” Wilson, who does more than enough in his headline debut to prove that he’s ready for the bigtime.  No, his work here isn’t perfect, but it doesn’t have to be, and no matter what pitfalls of direction, screenwriting, and editing surround him, he keeps Bloodfist entertaining, and he’s got punch where it counts.

Bottom line, Bloodfist isn’t great, but it’s good enough, and as the true starting point of Don “the Dragon” Wilson’s film career, it earns a “required viewing” spot in the chop socky canon.  If you love the genre or even like it just a little, this movie is certainly worth your time.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, March, 2014


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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