Starring Jeff Speakman, James Hong, Mako, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (CHT), Professor Toru Tanaka, James Lew, Jeff Imada, Al Leong
Fight Choreography by Ricky Avery
Directed by Mark DiSalle
In the early 90’s Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme ruled the Hollywood martial arts film world, and there seemed to be no one who could break out of B-movie hell to challenge them, until a kenpo master trained by Ed Parker came to the fore named Jeff Speakman, and even though this would be his only real “big” Hollywood film, he made a first film that really did challenge the Big Two…
Jeff Speakman stars as Jeff Sanders, an otherwise normal looking construction worker who, as we see in flashbacks, grew up a troubled kid after the death of his mother, trying to live with a stern father and a little brother who idolized him. Family friend Kim (Mako) tells Jeff’s father about a “special” school where he can channel his anger and find focus, and before long Jeff becomes a badass kenpo practitioner until he jacks up a football player and sends him to the hospital, and is cast out by his father. Now Jeff returns to see his old mentor Kim, but things aren’t well in happytown, where the local Chinese Mafia families are at war with each other, and Jeff finds himself in deep trouble when he intervenes, causing a chain of events that leads to Kim’s death. Along with his little brother, now a police officer himself, Jeff takes on Yung (Hong), the man who ordered Kim’s death in an effort to get his revenge. The question is whether Jeff’s truly learned how to control himself…
The story is a by the numbers story except for one thing that I thought was pretty original: Jeff’s an idiot. Really, a grade-A fool whose fists are deadly weapons. He’s a simple guy who reacts first and thinks later, making him easily manipulated by Yung and constantly trying to control his anger to the point he can’t think too terribly much about anything else. I actually like the fact that he’s not the sharpest tool in the shed, and rather than finding easier ways to do things, he runs into everything and wrecks house, but somehow finds a way to move ahead in his quest. Jeff Speakman does a good job of portraying Jeff for his first starring role, and has some screen presence. Mako is…well, Mako, and does a good job as he usually does playing Mako. James Hong chews up the screen as Yung, but CHT is woefully underused as henchman Kai. But no self respecting action film would be complete without the greatest henchman who ever lived, the great Al Leong. Professor Toru Tanaka gets the lion’s share of the bad guy scenes, and it’s not hard to see why. Tanaka’s imposing frame gives him such a screen presences as an unstoppable baddie that it feels a little cheap how Jeff finally takes him down, but I’d stick Toru Tanaka up there with Bolo Yeung: two dudes I wouldn’t want to mess with unless I was inside a very large tank about a mile away.
The fight choreography was well done for a Hollywood martial arts film, and the director had the good sense to let the action speak for itself rather than editing it to hell or doing too many close-ups. This film is the only real film to showcase kenpo karate, and does so admirably. The best fight really comes in the middle of the film as Jeff takes on James Lew and two others. They are the only characters other than Jeff who know martial arts, so it good to see Kenpo versus other styles, however brief. The other fights rock on as Jeff uses his feet, fists, escrima sticks and knives in a showcase of his style. I’ll say this, Speakman had some of the fastest hands I’ve ever seen onscreen.
Jeff Speakman didn’t make too many more films after this, but he’s become one of the best martial arts instructors in the country, and youtube is full of his seminars and demos. He may not have become a superstar, but he did make a great 90’s film, and when you can perform katas to Snap’s The Power, well, that puts this film into classic territory for me:
That and the coat. That’s the baddest ass hero’s jacket I’ve ever seen. I need one.
(On a scale of 1-10, 10 being the best):
CHOREOGRAPHY: (8) This film shows off kenpo better than any I’ve ever seen, and it keeps things fast but coherent, and Jeff looks fantastic. The end fight was a little disappointing, but the gym fight and the warehouse fight more than make up for it.
STUNTWORK (7) Well done, but nothing to write home about. Outside of a flipped car the stunt men really didn’t do anything special.
STAR POWER: (7) Jeff’s star never really took off, but this film is a who’s who of Hollywood Asian mainstays such as Mako, James Hong, James Lew, Al Leong, and Jeff Imada. The biggest star would turn out to be the one person with the least amount of screen time in the film: Mariska Hargitay of Law and Order: SVU.
Final Grade: (7.5) A fun filled martial arts film that showcases the style of kenpo karate and introduces Jeff Speakman as well as featuring one of the best early 90’s songs of all time!
NEXT: Jet Li and Donnie Yen go fist to fist in Once Upon A Time In China 2!