With Lunar New Year upon us, Tom Jolliffe looks back at an oddball straight-to-video opus set over Chinese New Year…
We’re into the year of the Ox. Across the world many people have been celebrating the Lunar New Year, whether it’s their cultural norm, or whether they’ve been allured by a supermarket promotion to give it a bit of a go. Well, how about marking the new year by venturing to a simpler time. A time when there was a video rental store in every town. A time when you could spend hours browsing shelves and being allured by all manner of VHS cover art and also a time when Cynthia Rothrock reigned supreme and Bolo Yeung was a prolific video villain.
Before getting onto Tiger Claws II, perhaps best to touch upon the first of the trilogy. A simple but fairly enjoyable concept, Tiger Claws saw two cops reluctantly partner up (played by Rothrock and Jalal Merhi) to track a serial killer (Bolo) targeting only Martial arts masters, and despatching them in a very distinct way (using the Tiger Claw martial art style). It’s equal parts terrible, goofy and fun, with some enjoyable fight sequences. The film itself might have seemed like another example during that period of anchoring a male co-star to Rothrock. It seemed disappointingly rare for her to fly solo which was odd given that she was very much the star attraction in most of them. For the most part too she vastly outshone said co-stars (Richard Norton aside who was always great alongside or as villain for Rothrock). The truth is however, the film seemed to be more like an investment in his own career as an action man for Jalal Merhi. Merhi may have bought himself the leading role (it kind of shows) but he’d go onto have quite a prolific career in front and progressively behind the camera.
So the first film has the kind of simple, but slightly silly concept that seemed common in 90’s video action. It’s the kind of thing that’s increasingly given way to more generic, decidedly routine concepts in 21st century video action. Combined with a lot less money being pumped into many of these kind of films nowadays, the market is largely a lot less interesting with less of a goofy, so bad it’s good charm. A recent example that evoked the 90’s action gonzo gallivanting was Jiu Jitsu which actually has elements of both Tiger Claws 1 and 2, alongside a miss-mash of many other ideas (Predator too). Daft, kind of terrible, but a lot of fun. Tiger Claws II though. Well this is something else.
The first sequel sees Bolo back on the loose, in cahoots with one of his old Martial arts clan brethren turned criminal mastermind. There’s a martial arts cult with their eyes on buying arms from nefarious gangsters as the police hopelessly follow a trail of bodies that Bolo is leaving behind. Then things take a decidedly odder turn to fantasy as Rothrock and Merhi find themselves being taken to an underground City, and we’re in Temple of Doom/Big Trouble in Little China territory. They’re thrown into a labyrinthine maze, needing to find their way through to compete in a special tournament of select masters. Oh and it’s approaching Lunar New Year and said battling will open up a time portal…or something. Whatever was going around the pitch meeting on a silver tray must have been good. Writer J. Stephen Maunder took the series start to finish, directing the second and third instalments too. Tiger Claws II to this point had been erratically unfocused, albeit with a predilection for John Woo inspired shootouts (and seemingly more money than the first one put into bang for buck). The whole film is a mess, compared to the simplicity of the first film, but the final 20 minutes as we get into the odd and fantastical elements is a lot of fun (and some of the fights are very good). Sure, the sets might look a little bit like they’re plucked from a 90’s game show like The Crystal Maze, but it adds to the charm and gives an excuse for production to go hog wild with fog machines.
By the time the new year kicks in, the bad guys have been stopped but Bolo escapes through the time portal. Only Bolo doesn’t. Maybe Bolo had gone home, but a guy in a hooded robe, supposed to be Bolo, goes through instead and a clumsily cropped few frames of his face from an entirely different setting (possibly even movie) are spliced in just so we know it’s Bolo, and it’s that kind of Tommy Wiseau-esque cinematic oafishness that only adds to a distinct charm the film has. A few years after, and Rothrock and Merhi came back for Tiger Claws III, which doubled down on the Big Trouble elements and the fantasy, but whilst the film had video stalwart Loren Avedon on board as the villain, it did seem to miss the inimitable presence of Bolo Yeung, who without doing or saying much was always imposing and it certainly looked a lot less lavish. If you are celebrating Chinese New Year, undoubtedly it won’t involve anything as crazy, potentially world ending as underground, time portal opening tournaments. Xīnnián kuàilè.
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…https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/