Tom Jolliffe on the essential films of Don “The Dragon” Wilson…
The wondrous lure of the video rental store. Slightly sticky carpets with weathered fibres in the horror and/or erotica sections. Many a lumbering boot had trod before the shelf where the latest Shannon Tweed films were housed. I’d spend ages perusing and taking in the gargantuan range of enticing VHS cover art. Independent family stores were without doubt the best, soon replaced by the corporate staleness of Blockbuster video (but even they retain nostalgic, misty eyed recollections among aficionados).
I grew up on VHS rentals, and in particular a penchant for action. When I’d worked through the gamut of the top tier stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Steven Seagal and Dolph Lundgren, there was left a desire for more carnage. Sure, I could probably watch Predator for the 3000th time, but I could also look beyond the most recognisable action names.
In the late 80s and early 90s, action stars were being fired out to the masses with regularity. Low budget specialists like Cannon (or the post Golan and Globus split variants of the company), Roger Corman, PM Entertainment and more were making stars to rival the theatrical stars. The films, often shot for well below $5 million bucks, were occasionally given small theatrical releases, but the ultimate goal was to ride the crest of a VHS boom wave and capitalise on a booming home market. Thus we had Cynthia Rothrock, Lorenzo Lamas, Olivier Gruner, Gary Daniels, Billy Blanks, Roddy Piper and many more forging successful careers in their respective pieces of action pie. I’ve watched them all.
To be an action star required one or more of several key elements. You could be a big behemoth. For every Arnold, you had a Ralf Moeller or Matthius Hues. You could be an ex-sports icon like the Boz (Brian Bosworth to the layperson), but one particularly deep well of stars came from the martial arts world. This included many of the aforementioned, many of which were former world champions. These guys (and girls) were often legitimate badasses. The real deal, and few could claim to have quite such an impressive record as Don “The Dragon” Wilson one of the all time great World kickboxing champions.
Such was the apparent gravitas of making a star out of a world kickboxing champ, that for a number of films (on artwork, promos and in the opening credits) Don would be billed as “World Champion Kickboxer, Don “The Dragon” Wilson. The Terminator poster never billed Schwarzenegger as “Mr Universe/Olympia…” Still, in his initial Roger Corman lead break, Don Wilson would quickly become big on video and end up a mainstay in the genre throughout the 90’s, into the early 00’s.
Whilst many came and fizzled out, Wilson remained a consistent draw on VHS format. Inevitably when Sly et al found their appeal wane, and Lundgren, Van Damme, Seagal and Wesley Snipes became permanent fixtures on DVD premieres, the likes of Wilson found leading roles harder to come by, and budgets dropping to anaemic levels. Wilson and company were effectively pushed down and almost out of the market.
Still, let’s remember that heyday and look at some essential Don “The Dragon” Wilson films…
The Bloodfist Series
It’s hard to separate some films in this iconic action series. Fronted by Roger Corman, the idea was initially to dip into the slipstream of Bloodsport and Kickboxer’s success for Van Damme.
Wilson was given his first major break as a leading man. Different from a few of his contemporaries, Wilson has a kind of on-screen affable charm. He’s stayed largely consistent in playing characters with upstanding morals, often thrust into deadly situations and rising to the challenge. He’s always an undeniable badass, but never indestructible/infallible (like Seagal), and never pre-occupied with posing and looking good on camera (Van Damme and Lamas for example). Sometimes the Wilson character is almost endearingly unaware or naïve to what he’s got himself into, and certainly in comparison to most of his machismo action brethren, quite respectful to the female love interests.
Bloodfist as a series starts with Wilson playing Jake Raye, who fights in a tournament of champions in the first film, coming up against Billy Blanks on his way. It’s an enjoyable Bloodsport riff for certain. The second film takes a similar concept, thrusting Raye into an island fortress where the best of the best have been kidnapped to fight to the death. The Philippine settings for both are eye catching, but there’s just a bit more variation and threat of death in the second film. The series then progressed into a more eclectic action mix where Wilson would play different characters each time (but essentially always playing someone a bit similar).
Bloodfist III: Forced to Fight is a prison set action drama, elevated by a very good support cast, where inmates are being forced to fight by a maniacal warden. There’s a clear increase in budget and a little more refinement. It ranks as the best in the series. Then things veer far more into high concept action. Bloodfist IV: Die Trying sees Wilson as a repo man who unwittingly takes hold of a deadly (and highly valuable) item. He’s also framed for murder and has his daughter kidnapped. It’s stylish and the McGuffin pot boiler storyline gives it enough interest to see the film through (add to that a Wilson vs Gary Daniels throw down).
#5 (Human Target) is kind of Wilson meets Jason Bourne, before the series begins to tail off slightly with #6 (Ground Zero, a die hard riff), and #7 (Manhunt) which takes things into Fugitive territory. Things pick up slightly with the final entry of the Wilson fronted series (several of the latter which were shoved under the Bloodfist moniker after the fact, in selected territories). There’s a certain novelty in seeing Ireland (Galway) as the backdrop (and the story repeats much of the fourth entry). Wilson in fact did a couple of films in Ireland, including Moving Target which even more directly riffed the fourth Bloodfist film and also marked his final collaboration (of 12) with Corman.
Ring of Fire Series
Another solid franchise, extending to two films, and a third which was part of it in select territories. Ring of Fire is Romeo and Juliet meets Bloodsport/fist. Don plays Johnny Woo, a Doctor whose cousin is leader of an Asian gang. Woo falls in love with a woman from the rival gang and fisticuffs ensue. This began a short run Wilson had with the prolific and largely consistent PM Entertainment, whose stunt heavy action films have accrued a big cult following.
Ring of Fire is pre-peak era PM and feels smaller in scale, but it fits the intimacy required of a film that is largely about hand to hand fights and forbidden, Shakespearean love. The sequel doubled down on the fighting, as is the wont of a Wilson sequel. It’s less endearing than the first, but does feel like there’s more inherent danger from the underground fight circuit, and Wilson gets his first (brief) showdown with Gary Daniels.
The third/not third film in the series, known in some territories (including UK video if I recall) as Lionstrike has Wilson return as a Doctor (this time Wu instead of Woo) and they seemingly ignore the first two. Here, Wu is unwittingly dragged into a wider story, much like a few of his Bloodfist series. The remote settings prove effective and Bobbie Phillips offers great support, further proving here, as she did in her all too infrequent action roles, that she could have had a more prolific stab (or kick) at being an action heroine. It’s the best of the series, features a young Michael Jai White, has great action and Wilson in fine form, at his most heroically affable.
Red Sun Rising
Arguably Wilson’s best film, Red Sun Rising has a lot going for it. It’s a classic cable era, enjoyable late night special. It’s great Friday night VHS rental fare. Wilson plays a Japanese Detective who tracks his partners killer to LA, where he is teamed with a reluctant and undermined female detective played by Terry Farrell. The killer (James Lew) holds a great power, something Hoshino (Wilson) is wholly unprepared for. Who else can train Wilson but the legendary Mako? We get plenty of enjoyable fights, a little mysticism and some enjoyable chemistry between Wilson and Farrell. Additionally, Lew is always a great foe.
Cyber Tracker (1 and 2)
Another Wilson and PM Entertainment collaboration, and another film deemed worthy enough to spawn a sequel. Cyber Tracker plunders from Terminator and Robocop, ramps up the cat and mouse elements and throws as much vehicular carnage as possible into the mix. The result is undoubtedly cheesy in the first film but also, a lot of fun. It’s post midnight cable guff in the best possible way, with Wilson atypically likeable as Eric, a secret service agent framed by his employers and targeted by an elite law enforcement cyber-tracker.
There were countless low budget sci-fi action films around this time, often owing a big debt to RoboCop, Predator, Aliens or Terminator. PM certainly made a few, and Cyber Tracker is one of the more enjoyable. Wilson in the cyborg field didn’t quite hit the dizzying heights of the Olivier Gruner double whammy, Nemesis and Automatic but he wasn’t too far off. Cyber Tracker 2 ups the ante and also throws in a cyborg replica of Wilson in for good measure. It’s just that bit crazier, and almost feels like budget Bay film. Check out the trailer and it looks action packed. The final film also delivers.
This is a bit of an oddity. It’s part serial killer pot boiler, part stalker thriller, and a whole big dash of Wilson fight fest. It’s one of the few the man himself isn’t too keen on from his own CV (due to a slightly odd, oedipal subplot). That said, Wilson as a high kicking bodyguard tasked with protecting an aspiring singer (who is being stalked), is good. Matthius Hues makes for an imposing and suitably deranged villain. There’s also scenery chewing support from Richard Beymer (of original West Side Story fame) as one of the film’s other antagonists. He dials it right up, but given he’s far and away the best actor in the cast list, he’s still a cut above. Icky moments aside, it’s well made and hell, I dig the soundtrack.
Virtual Combat (Grid Runners)
Part of that 92-98 post-The Lawnmower Man VR fascination. Virtual Combat (or Grid Runners) has an interesting concept, where VR characters can be brought to life. A couple of cybersex femmes are brought to life, whilst a maniacal warrior is too, intent on bringing more villains into the real world. It’s down to… yep… Don the Dragon to stop them. There’s just enough gonzo here to make this a satisfying slice of mid 90’s sci-fi action hokum (from reliable scribe William C. Martell and prolific producer-director Andrew Stevens).
Out For Blood
Don The Dragon is effectively Batman here. Wilson stars as a lawyer whose family gets murder. He goes out on a revenge mission and becomes a vigilante dubbed ‘the Karate Man.’ If you want Wilson starring in a superhero film, this Batman/Kick-Ass/Punisher by way of Steven Seagal film is the closest you’ll get. It’s all efficiently crafted by director Richard W. Munchkin, whose prolific PM output included Don’s Ring of Fire 1 and 2, Guardian Angel (Cynthia Rothrock) and Deadly Bet (Gary Daniels).
The Last Sentinel
It’s not one of Wilson’s best films, but marks one of his final leading roles. It’s also an early effort from director Jesse V. Johnson who has since established himself as one of the best action directors in the business. The Last Sentinel is an intermittently philosophical but ultimately misfiring post apocalyptic sci-fi film where Wilson has a talking rifle as his only friend, before Katee Sackhoff wanders into his life. Hot off her Battlestar Galactica fame, Sackhoff is effectively the star attraction here, and with a career on the rise when she filmed this, it’s not much of a surprise that later editions of the film saw her go solo on the cover art.
This is an odd one. There’s some interesting ideas, some big stunts and Wilson gives one of his more pensive and introspective performances, but the antagonist humanoid drones look more comical than threatening (particularly when the ‘super drone’ is unmasked). As per normal, Johnson was also able to call upon a solid support cast including Keith David, Bokeem Woodbine and Steven Bauer.
The Last Sentinel looks and feels like a made for cable special, which ultimately it is, but showed glimpses of Johnson’s future promise. It’s an example of a film which has ideas beyond the reach of its budget. That it closed Wilson’s status as a headliner is sad, but it showed some glimpses of the Dragon having potential to transition from straight up fighting films.
What is your favourite Don “The Dragon” Wilson film? Let us know your thoughts on our social channels @flickeringmyth….
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 2022, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, 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 here.