At this stage in my revisit of 90’s video action stars, I find myself not only dredging through the dark recesses of my brain in order to think up who to run the rule over next, but I start hearing my life in comically loud sound effects. The kind of subtlety free, maximum volume ejaculations of noise which greet the impact of a punch or kick within the 90’s film world. I can’t turn my head without hearing a majestic ‘whoosh’ accompany within my mind.
Maybe I’ve done too much. Maybe I’ve not gone far enough. Maybe my reality will be infected with ‘splosions, improbable physics, odd presidents…wait…forget that last one. Still, it disappoints me that unlike the 90’s action video world, women don’t throw their tops off at the slightest whim, but by part 5 or 6, perhaps that’s what I’ll be seeing in my Straight To Video Matrix brain fuck.
Let Part III commence.
Hulk Hogan in Assault On Devils Island
Have you taken your vitamins my little Hulkamaniacs? Are you a real American? Fightin’ for the rights of every man. Anyway, when it comes crashing down and it hurts inside, I find myself watching Hogan alongside Carl Weathers and Shannon Tweed in Assault on Devil’s Island. Here’s the thing with Hogan: he’s a bad actor. There’s no disguising it. Physically too, he’s always kind of lumbered around in his action films.
Still, when this first appeared to me as a teen, as a trailer preceding a video I’d rented (and I now no longer remember the film this trailer was attached to), I recall thinking it looked great. There were lots of ‘splosions in it. It had Shannon Tweed in it, and the possible promise of sequences without much attire. It also had Carl M.F Weathers running from an explosion. At this point in time I’d enjoyed Hogan as a wrestler, and I’ll hold my hands up, when I was younger I thought Suburban Commando was ace. I’d also enjoyed Weathers of course, mostly as Creed, but also in Action Jackson. Neither Hogan, nor particularly Weathers, were as prolific in action flicks as they may have been, so Devil’s Island was something of a luxury.
Hogan’s film legacy is largely a mix of hilariously bad family films, with the occasional hilariously bad action film thrown in. Ultimate Weapon saw Hogan donning a wig which right from the off means the film cannot be taken seriously. My friend had a drinking game for Hogan films which involved taking a shot every time you could quite obviously spot a Hogan stunt double. I didn’t partake in said game, merely heard about it after the fact. Needless to say it’s the reason I’m still here today, because were you to watch Ultimate Weapon, or The Secret Agent Club, you’d die within 20 minutes. In any case, given such filmmaking ineptitude which accompanied Hogan’s films (and the doubling is sort of understandable given he was often still on the wrasslin’ circuits around these times too) it goes without saying that the levels of mediocrity reached in Devil’s Island (and its sequel Assault on Death Mountain), feels like a blessing.
Devil’s Island is goofy fun, stuck in low rent 80’s video mode (in a kind of good, two levels below Cannon, way). It’s got a lot of action and it’s blessed with a fine villain ensemble for our odd but endearing triple team to fight in Billy Blanks, (the late great) Billy Drago and Trevor Goddard, as well as Martin Kove who appears as the team’s supervisor.
Don ‘The Dragon’ Wilson in Red Sun Rising
Don ‘The Dragon’ has a very unique distinction among the 90’s video action crew. He’s headlined a franchise that ran 8 films, and played a different character in almost all of them. Only the first two films in the Bloodfist have a ‘continuation’ with him repeating his role as Jake Raye. It’s a mostly enjoyable series too. There was a time when I’d look at the Wilson films and find them a bit rubbish. Perhaps unfairly they were drawing comparison to Stallone, Van Damme etc. in films which cost a hell of a lot more.
After a long scouring through many B movie action films in the video realm it one day retrospectively dawned on me (particularly upon revisiting some) that his output was pretty solid in comparison to a lot of his peers. Wilson isn’t the greatest actor. A few bit parts here and there aside (almost limited to walk-ons), the one time Kickboxing World Champ finally got his break in Roger Corman’s Bloodfist. Whether acting was a long standing ambition or something thrust his way for producers to try to find the new Van Damme (Wilson once infamously called the Muscles from Brussels out for a fight, which JCVD declined), he wasn’t as easy in front of camera as a Dudikoff for example. Regardless, Wilson seemed to possess an easy affability. Whether his characters were carefully chosen this way or whether his own persona just came across that way, but he’s always been a likeable on screen presence. It helped he wasn’t always playing growling, rugged toughs (someone like Jeff Wincott conversely, tended to), and he didn’t have an air of preened Gold’s gym obsession and capture my good side ego like Lorenzo Lamas occasionally did (and indeed Van Damme).
Picking the Wilson film to revisit was tough, because as mentioned, he’s actually done quite a few solidly enjoyable time-passers in the 90’s action pantheon. There were a few Sci-Fi and Horror films within too which provide goofy entertainment, be they the PM films double bill of Cyber-Tracker 1 and 2 (low rent Terminator riffs), Night Hunter (Vampires) or Virtual Combat (one of a slew of actioners from the mid-90’s with an obsession with VR).
I opted for one of his best, Red Sun Rising, a fairly straight up but engaging action film with a dash of mysticism, with Wilson tracking a Yakuza killer who has mystical ninja powers. A fine support cast with Terri Farrell, Mako, James Lew and Michael Ironside also help elevate this, along with a fine stunt team. Wilson does a fine job here, and a bit more time and care was afforded to his fight scenes than in some other films (which was always an Achille’s heel in many American/Canadian DTV action films back then).
Loren Avedon in King Of The Kickboxers
So far for this part of my action pilgrimage there’s a running Billy Blanks theme, having appeared in Assault on Devil’s Island and also opposite Mr Wilson in Don’s aforementioned Bloodfist breakout. Well guess what, the Tae Bo man is back again, as the bad guy facing Loren Avedon in King Of The Kickboxers.
Avedon is perhaps best known for his roles in the No Retreat No Surrender franchise (from 2 onward). King Of The Kickboxers was released as the fourth of the franchise in some territories, though all four films are entirely disconnected. Much like Wilson, Avedon had an easy going amiability on screen. He wasn’t as prolific as many others, perhaps not finding much of an audience outside of his primary franchise. In those respects (as well as a seeming ‘early retirement’) his career mirrors someone like Frank Zagarino.
Time has been very kind to King Of The Kickboxers. It’s almost a sad irony too, because there’s an appreciation for Avedon that perhaps wasn’t quite captured in the VHS boom years. The film is funny, not always intentionally I might add, but it’s great fun and the fight scenes are fantastic. There’s a lot of action in this, with which some M.A stunt maestros (and occasionally leading men themselves) like Keith Cooke and Jerry Trimble appear, before the final showdown with Blanks, which is pretty damn impressive it must be said, and to quote Avedon’s immortal line (and delivery of said line…) ‘LET…THE…GIRL GO!’
Jeff Speakman in Land Of The Free
Jeff Speakman was one of action cinema’s anomalies. Do you remember hair metal bands that launched in the early 90’s, met with the thud of irrelevance thanks to Nirvana? Well in the early 90’s, the B-action market was clearly leaning to video, and by the mid-90’s people were progressively looking at a fresher approach to action with guys like Tom Cruise, Nicolas Cage and Will Smith becoming popular in the genre. In the 80’s it was open season on launching a new cinema action star. The 90’s was more about launching video specialists.
Still, that didn’t stop someone like Speakman (see also Brian Bosworth, in a future instalment of this series) being backed fairly significantly as a potential theatrical star to rival the level of Van Damme and Steven Seagal. His first film, The Perfect Weapon, a cult favourite, was actually a solid opening. Speakman’s on screen fighting style (Kenpo) seemed as eye-catching and different as Seagal’s when he’d first burst onto the scene. The film was fairly successful, but by his follow up (Street Knight, the final nail in Cannon Films’ coffin) Speakman was relegated to being another video scrapper. Whether he didn’t quite have the on-screen presence of a Seagal or his first had captured that last little wave of popularity for a pure and simple martial arts action film on the big screen. Another problem was a two year gap between his first and second, by which time he’d (theatrically at least) become a forgotten commodity.
Land Of The Free appeared well into Speakman’s output of DTV films. Generally his standards weren’t the best, as even on video he didn’t quite have the draw that the likes of Don Wilson had well established through their prolific output. From PM Films, Land Of The Free has elements you’d expect from PM from good stunts to the trademark PM car flip. It also has William Shatner cranked up to 11 as the villain. Speakman is kind of bland here, but not aided by half-hearted writing and long stretches where the film seems to wait for action. Speakman seemed to wind down into the new millennium. He’d become less prolific (and less prominent within the films) and hasn’t acted since 2006.
Bobbie Phillips in Chameleon
Bobbie Phillips was something of an action goddess in waiting. Her career was pretty diverse, starring in everything from horror, to erotic thrillers and even appearing (minus clothing) in Showgirls. At the same time, she’d been forging a little side-line as a reliable supporting action artist. Having been trained in Kung-Fu initially by a certain Billy Blanks (Billy is slowly taking over this article), she continued studying. It may have helped maintain a diversity of role I suppose, but that potential to follow in the wake of a Cynthia Rothrock may have been a missed opportunity.
One issue had probably been a lack of leading opportunities. She’d appeared with Blanks in TC 2000 and Back In Action, as well as being an excellent partner in ass-kickery for Don Wilson in Lion Strike (one of his best). She had a great mix of acting talent, the looks and the on screen fighting ability. It wouldn’t be until 1998 that Phillips would get her lead action property. That was the first of the Chameleon trilogy.
Chameleon is an odd one. It’s a made for TV film, which was essentially a feature length pilot for a show which never took off, but was popular enough to garner two sequels. Set in 2028 Phillips is an enhanced super killer who develops maternal feelings after saving a child. It’s a stylised, super powered martial arts action film, heavy on leather and shades. It’s heavily inspired by both Blade and The Matrix…but wait…it’s not. This actually preceded both. The similarity with Chameleon and the wake of Matrix inspired films and TV properties that shat across the market in the early 00’s is kind of remarkable, but let no one say this film is just another copycatter. It regardless, owes nods to many of the same reference points as The Matrix of course, particularly with the HK style action and the John Woo-esque stylistics. The sequels were more of the same and stayed fairly consistent in standard. Still, Phillips is so good as an ass-kicking female powerhouse, one wishes she’d made more.
Let us know you favourites from any of the aforementioned stars. I’m also happy to take requests for stars to cover. Hit us up on Twitter @flickeringmyth and in the comments below…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2021, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.