Tom Jolliffe looks at the career of British action star Gary Daniels…
If you’re into action (and particularly anything to do with Martial arts) and you enjoy seeing some of Britain’s finest flying the flag, then you’ll probably know about Jason Statham and Scott Adkins. There’s another Martial Arts icon that genre fans might well be familiar with too, especially those with a predilection for 90’s straight to video films. The original. The trailblazer for British kickers, who forged a fine career in a very American dominant market who outlasted many U.S. stars. Throughout the 90’s in particular, Gary Daniels was a standout in the world below the Jean-Claude Van Damme tier, where companies like PM Entertainment were blasting out action films for the home video (or HBO) market.
Like many of those stars who came with the rising tide of VHS, Daniels was to be ‘the next [insert popular action hero of the time].’ Cannon pushed Michael Dudikoff. Roger Corman was backing Don ‘The Dragon’ Wilson. A few years later, Daniels would become the epitome of everything great about PM Entertainment. An innumerable onslaught of kickboxers turned leading men had varying success and not always limited to straight to video. Dudikoff began as a theatrical star, Wilson too, and French star Olivier Gruner would briefly become the next hope to rival Van Damme (who was blowing up at the time), though his early promise faded after an all too lengthy post-Nemesis gap. Additionally, as with many of these stars, Daniels was/is the real deal. A former world champion Kickboxer with an imperious record, his shift into movies began in earnest. Actually it began in The Philippines in a number of shoestring exploitation films (and offers to do ‘adult’ material along the way). Whilst The Philippines were proving a useful stomping ground for established American studios/producers (Cannon shot there a few times, as did Corman), Daniels’ time there wasn’t as successful, placed in shoddy productions that were never going to match Bloodfist (Wilson’s debut with Corman).
Hitting America would be the next logical step, and progress began slowly, but in the right trajectories finding himself opposite some more established stars like Jeff Wincott and Don Wilson. He had a few lead roles in that opening period like American Streetfighter (belonging in a realm where Tommy Wiseau and Samurai Cop might linger), but nothing that took hold. A first significant role would come as Daniels found himself cast as Richard Norton’s henchmen in City Hunter. Complete with blond flowing locks (an early Daniels calling card), he stood out in this Jackie Chan star vehicle, with the showpiece being a bizarre fight scene where Chan and Daniels transform into Street Fighter characters Chun-Li and Ken respectively. Daniels is still the definitive Ken for me too (where was the call for the JCVD film huh?).
In 1995 Daniels found himself cast in a project which on paper could/should have been the launching pad. By no means lavish, it still marked a significant jump in budget to many of the earlier films he’d appeared in. The live action manga adaptation Fist of The North Star brought with it a ready made fan base, and the addition of an impressive cast to star opposite Daniels (with Malcolm McDowell, Chris Penn and Costas Mandylor). Ending up straight to video in the US, it never quite managed to latch onto that fanbase, nor a growing trend in cyberpunk movies which were popping up with regularity at the time (though almost all were bombing at the box office). It didn’t propel Daniel’s up to a level near Van Damme or Lundgren, to get a run in the dying embers of these action star heroes on the big screen.
Daniel’s found his market as a leading man and it was firmly in video, but off the back of Fist of The North Star’s popularity (which did well on video and in Asia) he was now on a level with Wilson et al, and a big draw in the market. It was around the mid-90’s that Daniels went from being a PM entertainment also-ran, to being perhaps their star attraction. No longer would he play second fiddle to Chad McQueen for example, he’d be the headliner and given the backing of some of their more ambitiously budgeted films. Recoil, Riot and Rage in particular were all pretty spectacular, representing the pinnacle of a studio with an impish approach to scraping every penny from the coffers and putting it into the stunt department. PM became a breeding ground for stuntmen to indulge, and a good launching pad for stunt specialists like Spiro Razatos (who’s overseen the action on several Fast films among an array of huge movies ). In the center of this chaos was Daniels, who never shied away from performing much of the physical work himself (and always the fight sequences). In delivering the fight sequences and physical prowess, he excelled to a level above most of his rivals.
PM aside, Daniels delivered a number of very solid video actioners, like White Tiger (note, this actually has a well written female role for Julia Nickson, rare enough in action films, let alone DTV) and Fatal Blade. He also found himself in a couple of very memorable and credible attempts to bring Hong Kong standard fight sequences to American cinema, even before The Matrix did so. In Bloodmoon, which brought HK director Siu-Hung Leung in to direct, the film was loaded with great fight sequences and stunts, eclipsing a lot of what was being produced in America at the time. Even in his other films, Daniels’ prowess looked more impressive than many, but Bloodmoon saw a step up. This was repeated in Cold Harvest, an early work from action specialist Isaac Florentine where Daniel’s starred with scream queen Barbara Crampton and partook in a large number of expertly choreographed fights with over the top stunts (and even more over the top sound effects).
The 21st century came in and DVDs weren’t having quite the same popularity as VHS had previously, nor was the low budget action genre quite as popular either. Budgets dived, and Daniels, Wilson, Cynthia Rothrock et al were finding fewer leading roles coming their way, and often without the same financial weight behind them (even by the low bar they’d been in the 90s). Things had a resurgence thanks to Sylvester Stallone and The Expendables. The old school fascination had fans of a certain age reminiscing about the action stars of old. A time before CGI and crash course training, where the star was a legitimate badass. It wasn’t just the former theatrical icons many were getting misty eyed over either, but also those long time video stalwarts kicking ass in their corner too. It came as a pleasant surprise then that Daniels was placed on board The Expendables to play a henchman. Along the way he gets a memorable face off with Jet Li and Jason Statham. That would appear to kick start a few more lead roles again in films like Forced to Fight (with Peter Weller chewing scenery as the villain), Misfire (with Bepe from Eastenders… okay, not as big a sell as RoboCop) and Rumble.
Of late, Daniels has found himself popping up (and not before time) in a few British produced action movies too. Firstly in British M.A film specialist Ross Boyask’s film Vengeance (with Daniels as chief villain opposite Stu Bennett). Then, he played baddie again for the relentlessly passionate crew at Proportion Productions (who I’ve had the pleasure to work with) in The Gardener. This is the latest Robert Bronzi starrer, who’s carved out a nice niche thanks to his striking resemblance to the late Charles Bronson, and there’s a definite appeal to aficionado’s of Cannon era Bronson in seeing Bronzi tap into that exploitation realm. The Gardener, Daniels and Bronzi aside, is worth watching for its tagline alone…’Your ass is grass.’ With Daniels belying his age and still looking like he could win a world championship, there will undoubtedly be more action to come. Long may it continue.
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 2021/2022, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Patsy Kensit, 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/