Monday, November 23, 2009

Three "the Dragon" way: reviews of the "Ring of Fire" saga

Ring of Fire [***]

Because I’m dedicated to the work of Don “the Dragon” Wilson I tracked down his other franchise work “Ring of Fire” which has more of a meandering quality to it and also seems to be pretty heavily influenced by the works of one William Shakespeare. The film opens with a number of brief fights all pitting American fighters against Asians. By and large, the Americans win most of the fights but the Asians have one really good fighter who is a heavy drinker. The guy he beats up happens to be dating a girl named Julie (Maria Ford, gorgeous and bearing a strong resemblance to Jenny Wade of “Feast” fame) who after some casual and accidental racism develops a crush on Jimmy Woo (Don D. Wilson), a doctor who sometimes moonlights as a waiter in a Chinese restaurant when the work clothes he wears get him mistaken for a waiter. I especially liked how when he finally spoke Julie complimented him on his English and he said “you too.” In all fairness, she’s blonde and he’s Chinese so perhaps these are easy mistakes to make.

The Chinese and the Venice beach bums have firmly drawn turf and battle lines, that occasionally get crossed when the Venice beachers pants a Chinese guy and he retaliates with a golden shower. Then they retaliate with a group beating and then things escalate into a street brawl in Chinatown, but before anyone gets too seriously hurt the cops show up and the Woo’s and Julie’s brother and boyfriend make plans to settle things in the ring. It’s kind of nice to see two warring ethnic groups take their troubles to the ring because those fights appear to make the war more civil.
Also, there’s a detective who likes to nose around the hospital and accuse Woo’s family of being gangsters and drug dealers but there isn’t any indication that this is anything more than good old fashioned xenophobia (which it turns out can get you killed). That detective should also accuse his family of being cooks because he would at least be right about that.

Turns out I was wrong about when they make the deal in Chinatown to finish the war in the ring, it turns out to be a ring of fire where they fight Thai style to the death. Not a regular kickboxing ring where beefs get squashed with no fatalities.

The most interesting thing about the movie is the way that Don “the Dragon” Wilson is used. Being handsome finally pays off for him because he gets to be the romantic lead and they play the opposite sides of the track, warring families romance for all that it’s worth. When he finally does fight, he’s pretty much an unstoppable machine like David Sloan in “Kickboxer 3 and 4” Also, he has tow motives for finally stepping into the ring at the end, but it feels like he is less motivated by the one that should matter more.

Julie, sadly, can be a bit of a bitch…call it a plot contrivance if you want but the woman is only half as enlightened as she thinks she is and this is after she learns the ways of “the Dragon” in bed. She breaks up with Don at his cousin’s funeral and talks about how she used him to make Chuck (her jackass boyfriend) jealous, it’s the kind of thing that can almost negate a kind of sweet romance, see also the beginning of “The Karate Kid Part II” where we learn that whore Ali cheated on Daniel. We know up front that Julie is being kind of whore-ish but she keeps things chaste until she makes a final decision so it doesn’t have the same lasting impact. For my money, watching Don D. get hurt and betrayed is like watching that shit happen to family. No bueno.

I recommend this movie, it’s not a work of art but there is better care taken in telling the story than I initially realized (I believe I erroneously called it meandering at the outset of the review). It has more plot (and no surprise twists) than the average “Bloodfist” film and it has a little something to say about race relations and knowing when to fight. In that regard it’s a lot like the excellent “Bloodfist III.” It’s also the better interracial couple martial arts movie, less stylized and also a hell of a lot less chaste than “Romeo Must Die.” Surprisingly, most of the acting is actually pretty good too.

Ring of Fire II [***1/2]

Without needing to take the time to establish warring cultures and develop relationships “Ring of Fire II” hits the ground running and opens like all the best action films do: with the hero in a place about to get robbed. Julie (Maria Ford, looking even more bangin’ as a redhead) is all smiles because Jimmy just proposed to her and now they’re deciding what kind of honeymoon they’d like to take. Outside a group of thugs are getting ready to rob the place and inside Julie is talking about wanting to go someplace exciting, not knowing that the jewelry store they’re in is about to get hella awesome. So the thugs bust in and start smashing class cases, an employee trips the alarm and with what little time they have left they start snatching up rings, but one man picks the wrong ring. He wants Don D.’s wife’s ring, she says no and he slaps her, Don D. puts him through a window and Julie gets non-fatally shot. Say what you will, but Julie has a fantastic gift for dulling even the deadliest weapons. Except for Don, he’s a weapon she’s going to need.

Since this is a sequel most everyone is back including Brad (the ex-boyfriend), her brother and all of Johnny’s cousins (not the dead one though) and they all seem to have miraculously squashed their beef. That’s what you do though when mortal enemies have peaceful relatives that fraternize with each other, you backburner shit. Or you grow the fuck up. You have to give the people that matter to the people that matter to you a fair shake and also we’re the sum of our experiences so if it wasn’t for all that stuff that went down in part one nobody would care about each other.

The bad guys rather quickly (even in movie time) come looking to settle up with Johnny, his girlfriend gets kidnapped and the main villain Kalin has gone “underground” where a bizarre subculture of gangs exist and Johnny must fight his way through them “The Warriors” style to get to his girl. The gangs wear outrageous shit like hockey masks and a fight with them is lit entirely by swinging flashlights (it’s not a well lit fight but it’s not nearly as aesthetically ugly as one would think) another guy wears shoulder pads with bizarre decorations on them (as far as I could tell he might’ve fancied himself a samurai), but the lead gang looks like a six member version of Kiss without the face paint, but also with a dash of the leather daddy from the Village People and a shade of whatever it is that Dolph Lundgren’s get-up in “Masters of the Universe” was.

The action, choreographed by Art Camacho, is the best that has ever been in a Don D. Wilson movie, the group fights are generally pretty solid. Eric Lee’s Kwong gets the best fight when he takes on the shoulder pad gang after being spearated from all of his friends and even the second best when he fights an overly muscular Asian woman that he gropes, humbles and probably even beds in a span of five minutes. I think a small dose of the credit should go to the screenwriters who keep all the good guy separated for most of the movie so that each character has their moment to shine. Camacho does utilize the distinct characteristics of his three main fighters, Wilson is pure determination and rage, Kwong’s fights take advantage of how unimposing he is physically by arming him with weapons and then having him disarm his opponents with both humor and unexpected agility. Ian Jacklin as Kalin conducts cage fights while waiting for Woo to fight his way to him and the setting matches his raw animal brutality. Nice work on all fronts.

Outside of the martial arts, the exploding automobiles are done to glorious excess because just when you think they’ve exploded all that they possibly can the audience is graced with another glorious burst of flame.

An aside: in their determination to be as excellent as “Bloodfist III” we get the great Sy Richardson from “Colors” and “Repo Man” as Don D’s escort through the underground. Is he a better sidekick than Richard Roundtree? The answer to that determines which movie is the true champion of Don D’s filmography.

This film is a pretty unexpected departure from the first one and I have to admit that I pretty much loved it. How can you not, when was the last time you didn’t like a movie that took place underground and with bizarre subterranean sub-cultures. Yeah, I didn’t think you’d be able to answer.

Ring of Fire 3: Lion Strike [***]

Unlike with the “Bloodfist” sequels they didn’t bother to arbitrarily attach the words “Ring of Fire” and then a number to the title “Lion Strike” which is weird because it wouldn’t be arbitrary in this case, it would, in fact, be necessary because this is the third time that Don D. Wilson has played Dr. Johnny Wu. Even weirder than not doing the necessary number thing is the fact that Johnny Wu isn’t married and has a kid and the detective who was always accusing his family of being criminals is suddenly treating him like a stand-up guy and not someone he is always leery of. Is there some other Chinese Dr. Wu who knows martial arts and the same detective that I am unaware of? (Actually, it turns out this movie does take place in a distant future and Julie died in a car accident not too long after giving birth to their son) I like this new Johnny Wu, though. The brand new Wu takes on a gang of gun-toting doctors and nurses who have infiltrated the hospital where he works to break some mobster out of police custody. Wu and some other martial arts doctor (played by Timothy D. Baker of “Bloodfist II” and “No Retreat No Surrender” fame) are sparring on the roof when the shit hits the fan, they go inside to check on the old man and karate doc two gets shot. Wu springs into action throwing sidekicks and roundhouse kicks, shooting people in the legs and the head. He takes out seven people in one stretch outruns an old man shooting at him with a machine gun from a helicopter and dangles off the side of a building with one arm while he shoots at the chopper until it explodes in mid-air. As much as I miss the old crew after spending two movies to establish the bonds of love and brotherhood he had with his wife and family in the first two films I appreciate how much they’ve done in the action department to make up for those choices.

After the spectacular opening, the plot such as it is involves various mafia type organizations the world over coming together over black market nuclear weapons. Shortly after this partnership is established the mafioso is robbed of money and animportant diskette containing sales data of black market weaponry (one of that gang is played by Michael Jai White, but he doesn’t live long enough to do anything spectacular). A chase ensues and when the good doctor Wu finds himself saving the only surviving robber their bags are accidentally switched leaving the doctor with sensitive information he is unaware of.

Wu takes a weekend vacation with his son to a cabin in the woods where they plan to fish and bond and stuff when Wu meets cute with the park ranger lady (Bobbie Philips) after saving her from being harassed by a gang of punks. The scene is clearly meant to establish some of her skills as ex-Army, but I like the moxie the film shows in being able to throw characters into extra unrelated to the plot action sequences. Anywho, after this fight Ranger lady comes to dinner and the mafia finally figure out where Johnny is. They get to have a nice peaceful date, though before they get interrupted.

The rest of the movie is spent with Wu and female park ranger running around the woods disarming bad guys and kicking the shit out of them and setting the occasional booby trap.

I have to admit that the movie is well paced and acted but lacks the bizarre heights of invention of the second film, the stamp of Richard W. Munchkin (co-writer and director of the two previous films) is sorely missed because I think he really could’ve taken this film to some wonderful new heights. That being said the “Ring of Fire” legacy remains largely untarnished, I miss the old gang but Wu’s kid kind of makes up for all of that. When his dad and the park ranger get into a fight right in front of them he mimics them by beating up on a bag of groceries simultaneously. He also wakes up aqnd does a fist pump when he sees them kissing because he thinks it means he’s getting a new mom. Truth is, it doesn’t mean shit other than that they kissed. But Dr. Wu is nothing if not a forward guy, so maybe his son just has it in him to make those ridiculous leaps where every little gesture means a house in the suburbs with mom, dad, two point four kids and a dog. The bad guys aren’t the only ones thinking nuclear except this kid is just thinking about families. The kid is also pretty well adjusted for someone whose house was just shot up and who was kidnapped after the old man babysitting him was murdered.

I liked it though, the whole franchise was pretty soild. It didn’t last long enough to wear out its welcome and it works as both entertaining action pictures and a testament to Don D. Wilson’s charisma.

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