Tuesday, September 06, 2016

AOF ’16: Fist of the Dragon

For former MMA champion Damon Chamberlin, internet dating will be more dangerous than steel cage smack-downs. He has come to China to meet his match, Meili. She is lovely, but the restaurant they pick is totally bad news. Thanks to the villainous management, they are in for one heck of a first date. The bad guys are ruthless, the cops are stupid, but fortunately one look at Meili gives Chamberlin a heck of a lot of motivation in Antony Szeto’s Fist of the Dragon (trailer here), produced by the legendary Roger Corman, which screens during the 2016 Action on Film Festival.

Chamberlin wants to retire from fighting, so naturally he comes to China. Right, good luck with that. Shy Meili is exactly the kind of woman he could settle down with. Unfortunately, it is hard for her to break away from the compulsively workaholic tech start-up, where she runs the marketing. Cutting their first face-to-face short, she tells Chamberlin to come by her office with a box of moon cakes. As fate would dictate, the syndicate owning the restaurant plans to smuggle a set of nuclear detonators to the Russia mob in a box of said pastries—and there’s your Macguffin right there.

Before long, the evil mastermind Thorn kidnaps Meili demanding his moon cakes as her ransom. Chamberlin can fight, but he is not the sharpest samurai sword in the armory, but fortunately Meili’s expat friend Cassie can guide him around town. Naturally, the dumb cops assume he is a serial killer leaving a trail of dead bodies in his wake, including some of Thorn’s trusted lieutenants.

Fist is so gritty and down-market it will hold sentimental appeal for old school, unreconstructed martial arts fans, who still remember getting their fixes from dodgy Chinatown VHS tapes. It is safe to say Prof. Corman has not turned over an extravagant new leaf with his Chinese productions. Still, there is no denying the action is completely legit, even though high profile martial artist and fitness expert Juju Chan has a non-fighting role as Meili. Presumably, she is okay with this, since she co-produced. Regardless, she and lunk-headed Joshua J. (The Punk) Thompson forge some strangely sweet and chaste romantic chemistry together.

Thompson has the moves and he is paired up against some terrific foes, including Vietnamese-Australian superstar-in-the-making Maria Tran, crafty veteran Kong Kwong-keung (as the cleaver-hurling chef), and the massively skilled and intense Xin Sarith Wuku. As Thorn, Daniel Whyte holds up the tradition of the white devil villain, chewing through scenery like Pacman. However, Ellary Porterfield also upholds the tradition of the awkward Westerner best pal.

Fist is just old school all the way. Happily, that includes Trung Ly’s stylistically eclectic, down-and-dirty fight choreography. Fortunes were made from films like this, as Roger Corman well knows. Recommended for nostalgic martial arts fans, Fist of the Dragon screens this Friday (9/9) as part of this year’s Action on Film Festival in Monrovia, CA.