Tom Jolliffe delves into The Dusty VHS Corner to kick off a Bloodfist marathon…
Bruce Lee’s short film career left a lasting impression on action cinema. His major breakout hit, Enter The Dragon, set the bar for the martial arts tournament film. When the 80’s rolled around the sub-genre was further popularized with the breakout success of Jean Claude Van Damme with Bloodsport, and then later, Kickboxer. These films seemed to find a willing audience on the big screen, but even more so, on video. These films also appealed to producers too. Unlike perhaps the Rambo style film and all the pyrotechnics and disposable war vehicles required, a good martial arts film could be shot for peanuts.
Step forward legendary low budget producer/director Roger Corman. The formula seemed simple. Pluck a martial arts expert from somewhere and have him fight his way through disposable opponents until fighting the imposing villain of the piece. Corman opted in this case for Don “The Dragon” Wilson, a World Champion kickboxer and very much the genuine article. That he’d never really acted before was never a consideration.
Bloodfist would prove Wilson’s launching pad and spawn a further seven sequels, all starring Wilson. That said the connective powers of the films were shaky at best. The first two feature Wilson as the same character, but every subsequent sequel he would play a different character (in name only to be fair). Furthermore many of the Bloodfist’s were initially unrelated to the franchise but adopted the Bloodfist moniker in order to become more sellable. There was also a TV movie reboot called Bloodfist 2050 which due to its Wilson-less-ness, I refuse to acknowledge the existence of.
Now obviously I’m sure every film fan, at some point or another has thought to themselves, “now seems like a great time to have a Bloodfist marathon.” I mean, why not? They feature blood and fists, so what’s not to like? With that in mind I’ve taken it upon myself to offer the ultimate run through of the best martial arts series ever committed to celluloid…that features the words blood and fist in the title. Also bear in mind that Kickboxer only managed a pathetic five films, and Bloodsport a paltry four. Pathetic right?
Without further ado…
The film opens as it means to go on. The first four credits, starting with Don “The Dragon” Wilson, feature a name, then the honours and awards in martial arts that they’ve received. Never mind those trailers that feature billings like “Acadamy award winner,” Bloodfist’s billings are far more impressive.
Wilson stars as Jake Raye. His brother is fighting in an underground tournament in Manila, but ends up being murdered. Raye heads out to Manila to track down his brothers killer, believing it to be a rival fighter. The only way Raye can track down the culprit is to enter the tournament itself. Dear screenwriting 101, this is your blueprint!
Along the way Raye meets a woman and also befriends her crazy brother who will also fight in the tournament, and is played by “that guy in Lethal Weapon that Riggs tries to talk down from jumping off a building, but then jumps off with him just for fun.” Oh, in case you were wondering said actor was Michael Shaner. Man I want to watch Lethal Weapon right now! Right…where was I? Okay, Wilson also fights his way through a host of opponents. Judging by the front cover you’d assume his main rival in the film is Mr Tae Bo himself, Billy Blanks. However, Blanks is merely a piffling semi-finalist here, and the main villain is played by former South-East Asian kickboxing champ, Cris Aguilar who isn’t quite as imposing looking as Blanks.
Bloodfist is kind of slipshod, though still fairly entertaining. Wilson, still wet behind the ears as an on screen presence is nether-the-less likeable. It follows the formula to the letter, from the training, to the fight montages before the final battle. There’s also a twist chucked in for good measure. The fight sequences are not as polished as a Bloodsport or Kickboxer it must be said.
Beer rating: ★ ★ ★
Bloodfist II (1990)
Right I’m going to get a spoiler for this series out of the way right now. Bloodfist II is the master-piece of the series. Wilson is back as Jake Raye, who returns to the Philippines to fight once more, this time against steroid raged fighters who battle to the death for the amusement of villain, Su, played by Joe Mari Avellana. His name and face will be familiar from the previous film, having played Raye’s mentor and trainer in that. So we have a returning actor playing an entirely different character. This would indeed set the tone for the rest of the series as Wilson henceforth would play different characters.
Bloodfist II is just a bit more exciting and amps up the odds from the last film. Again, the Philippine locations are exotic. The film kind of dips a toe or two into science fiction and it’s ridiculous but it works.
Wilson is more assured this time around. The fights are a little more polished too. It’s goofy but it’s fun, taking the tournament formula and adding a pinch of Ivan Drago genetic tampering for good measure.
Beer rating: ★ ★
Bloodfist III: Forced to Fight (1992)
This pushes the second close for the title of masterpiece of the series. In many ways it’s more polished. The fights are better, the cast is better and Wilson has a little bit more character as Jimmy Boland than he did as Jake Raye. It perhaps lacks a goofy charm of the first two.
In Bloodfist III, gone are the exotic Philippine locations and tournament based fighting. Instead this instalment goes for another tried and tested sub-genre, the prison based action film. Wilson plays an inmate who was (of course) unjustly imprisoned. Of course the prison itself is corrupt. Part of the wild change was the fact this was initially a stand alone film called Forced to Fight. It became part of the Bloodfist series to capitalize on the success of the first two.
Alongside Wilson in the standard prison film routine is Richard Roundtree (Shaft). He’s that prison character everyone respects who can stay onside (initially) the inmates and the screws. Roundtree is good and firmly establishes himself as best actor of this film, and the series.
Come the end of course Wilson has very bloody fists having battered his way through an array of clichéd prison types, but regardless it’s decent enough for this sort of film. It doesn’t quite give The Shawshank Redemption a run for it’s money though unfortunately.
Beer rating: ★ ★
Bloodfist IV: Die Trying (1992)
At this point, Wilson had firmly established himself as a popular video star. He once famously challenged Jean Claude Van Damme to a real bout, having questioned the validity of some of Van Damme’s claimed World Karate Titles. Van Damme declined the invitation.
The fourth instalment sees Wilson star as Danny Holt, a repo man. After repossessing a car belonging to an arms merchant (as you do), Wilson finds himself in over his head. His friends get killed and his daughter gets kidnapped. Wilson sets about getting her back whilst taking down the bad guys. The plot sounds simple, though does it’s best to get convoluted.
Along with the returning Wilson, the cast also features Amanda Wyss (A Nightmare on Elm Street), Catya Sassoon (daughter of Vidal Sassoon, and something of a regular femme fatale in 90’s B Action), and the master of playing cops or principals, James Tolkan (Back to the Future).
Also featuring, in albeit a small role is Gary Daniels. At this stage of his career (known as the ponytail/luminous flowing locks stage) Daniels was just breaking in, and aside from leading a few uber-low budget films made in the Philippines, he’d largely appeared briefly as someone for (at the time) more established stars like Wilson and Lorenzo Lamas to pound. Bloodfist IV came shortly before a couple of breakout roles in City Hunter (opposite Jackie Chan) and a slightly misguided adaptation of Fist of the Northstar, which would help him establish himself as a popular straight to video action lead in the mid-late 90’s and beyond. Needless to say Wilson and Daniels go toe to toe here a couple of times.
The fourth film is enjoyable but might just leave you longing for the simplicity of South-East Asian set tournament films which started the series, and of which the series would never return to. The blood and the fists still remain though.
Beer rating: ★ ★ ★
Next time: Bloody Bloodfists Part 2: The Downward Spiral.