Starring Mark Dacascos, Kadeem Hardison, Brittany Murphy, Masaya Kato
Fight Choreography by Koichi Sakamoto
Directed by Steve Wang
Put together an idea right out of Rush Hour, team a young and talented but relatively unknown martial artist with a has-been actor from A Different World (The Cosby Show spinoff), have them directed by a guy best known for directing many episodes of the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, and give it all a B-movie budget. By all rights it should amount to a miserable mess, not a martial arts classic many haven’t seen that shows that in the right hands American martial arts films can be the equal of its Asian counterparts.
The film opens with Toby Wong (Mark Dacascos) emerging from a Chinese ship that has just made it to port in the USA. No sooner does he arrive than he is accosted by a group of corporate thugs led by the evil Madison, determined not to let Toby escape, since he has a Drive mechanism in him, an experimental weapon that boosts the reflexes and agility of its wearer. In other words, it gives a plausible explanation for why they can do the few wire fu scenes there are. (Anyone associated with Romeo Must Die take note) He’s a peaceful guy who has escaped with the weapon from the Leung Corporation, and means to sell it to the USA so they can keep pace.
Since the Drive is located near his heart, shooting him only in the legs is the only viable option, which they try to do, and in a great first fight he shows them just how hard that will be, with fight choreography reminiscent of the early Sammo Hung/Jackie Chan days. Mark really gets to display his aptitude for fighting in this scene, and is fast and graceful. Meanwhile, at a nearby bar, Malik Brody (Kadeem Hardison), a failed writer and an about to-be-divorced husband sits writing what he hopes will be a successful song, in an attempt to win his wife back. Toby shows up, still followed by those men who show up, and in grand Yakuza 80’s fashion start shooting shit up. After then gun down the bar owner, Toby takes them on once again, and once again beats them badly in a short but well done fight scene.
Toby finds himself having to kidnap Malik at gunpoint and order him to drive to Los Angeles. The interplay between the two is well done, and it had better be since they are together for the entire film. We also follow Madison, the cowboy killer as he searches for Toby. During this scene we get the running joke of the film as there is a tv show on constantly about an intelligent frog that solves medical cases. You’ll note it’s only enjoyed by the characters in the film with the dimmest bulbs.
Malik and Toby are apprehended by a road block by two cops. When they ask Toby his name, he replies “Sammo Hung”, looks at Malik and shrugs. A great moment where the filmmakers wanted those who know to understand where their influences for the film come from, and who they made it for. It turns out the cops work for Madison, and drive the boys to a gravel pit rig, where they come face to face with Madison and his stupid goons. Soon they find themselves in a fight on the rig handcuffed together (pays homage to the great scene in Project A2 with Jackie Chan fighting while handcuffed to someone else). The scene moves fast and is pretty funny, and once again shows great skills by Mark and top notch fight choreography. Quite a few “ouch!” moments for the stuntment here.
After escaping, Toby explains about the Bioengine(Drive) in his body, and offers him half of the 5 million he’s to make when he gets the Engine to the American Corporation. Malik refuses at first, but then thinks better of it after they stop off at Malik’s home to meet his estranged wife (Sanaa Latham, the star of Aliens Vs Predators) After Malik saves Toby at a train station when he’ s nearly captured, he agrees and the two make their way to LA.
We cut back to the Leung Corporation, where the CEO Mr. Lao is about to engage in the patented, time-tested art form of Evil Deeds, which always involves killing your own men who fail you just to show how bad you are. His employee pink slip comes in the form of the new BioEngine recipient, played by Masaya Kato (he would go on to play the villain in the martial arts epic Fighter in the Wind.)
We then go back to Malik and Toby on the road, and a funny conversation of east vs, west occurs, and the views of each others culture is hard for even Malik to argue with. Before the male bonding can continue further, Malik’s car blows a hose and they have to stop at the nearest motel, which is operated by a young girl named Deliverance (Brittany Murphy, before Clueless) whose parent are away on vacation. Note they left her behind, probably because you’ll realize in short order how batshit crazy this girl is. Meanwhile Madison’s reinforcements-or cannon fodder-arrive, and for reasons explained later know where Toby and Malik are at. One of the best fight scenes of the film occurs here, starting from a motel room and leading to the garage, and Mark Dacascos really gets to show his skills in their entirety. The fights are inventive and fast, and a lot of fun, in an old school Jackie Chan kinda way. I love how the others bad guys watch the first guy jump into the fight in the garage. They simply watch the guy get his ass kicked and the body language says it all: Dumbass. Good comedic moments involving Malik and Deliverance (who, once again, is completely looney toons).
In a supreme act of overkill Madison grabs a tri-barrelled rocket launcher and blows up the entire motel, but Malik, Toby and Deliverace get away. Toby and Malik head toward the Apollo 14 bar and diner, leaving Deliverance behind. They meet a rep from Comtech, the American company that they were to meet with, and before you know Toby is so happy he grabs the karaoke mike and sings a song to Malik. I was surprised to see that Mark actually has good singing voice. Of course, that may be what got him the job on the Iron Chef, so ugh to that. The song is interrupted when the new BioEngine, along with a bunch of guys on mopeds show up. Because mopeds are kinda badass, at least in some places. The final fights of the film occur here, with a lot of good stunts and choreographed fights. The line “ Let’s kick his ass and take his coat” will burn into your memory of great quotes after you see this. The final fight between Toby and the BioEngine is pretty good, nearly evoking some of Yuen Woo Ping’s fight choreography.
Before long Toby and Malik have defeated the bad guys and destroyed a diner, and their adventures continue. Which it looks like at the end was supposed to, but alas it wasn’t meant to be.
(On a scale of 1-10, 10 being the best)
CHOREOGRAPHY: (8) Good job by Koichi, evoking 80’s style Sammo Hung films with his elaborate choreography. The fights escalate well, as does the complexity of the choreography.
STUNTS: (8) Some good falls here, the stuntmen really threw themselves at it, and did well, which should be expected since the stunts were done by Alpha Stunts, a team that was trained under Martial Arts film legend Yusaki Kurata (Fist of Legend, Shanghai Express, Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Stars, and many more)
STAR POWER: (8) Mark won’t look this good again until Brotherhood of the Wolf, and Kadeem Hardison does a good job with the comedy without falling into Chris Tucker style annoyances. Kudos to the casting director for hiring new comer Brittany Murphy (R.I.P.) and Masaya Kato.
FINAL GRADE: (8) A terrific love letter to Asian cinema from a group that loves them as much as we do, and in doing so made one of the best American martial arts films ever.