Bloodfist (1989): Roger and The Dragon’s Thrilla in Manila

Matty looks back at a rock solid biff-’em-up. 

Despite thinking the movie a write-off until star Jean-Claude Van Damme convinced them to let him recut it, Bloodsport was a hit for The Cannon Group when it landed in theatres in February 1988. Forever keeping a close eye on the competition and anticipating that Bloodsport would experience further success on video [1], Roger Corman wanted a cash-in yesterday. Thus, the lord of the Bs mounted BLOODFIST (1989).

Needing a Van Damme of his own to headline the project, Corman sent an assistant to the library with a simple instruction: “Get me a list of martial artists, real champions.” The assistant cross-referenced their findings with the Los Angeles phonebook, and Don ‘The Dragon’ Wilson — the World Kickboxing Association Light Heavyweight Champion — was the sole bruiser with a number listed. Corman met Wilson and the rest is history. According to Wilson, Corman’s first words to him were “you’re going to be a big star”; and in Bloodfist’s wake, the mogul snapped The Dragon up on contract, initially for three pictures before extending it to include five more. Funnily, at the time of their meeting, Wilson had no idea who Corman was and was sure it was an elaborate scam. Thankfully, Wilson was quickly clued in by actor pal Barry Newman. Newman told him that Corman was “a fantastic guy” and “the most honest producer in Hollywood”.    

An unapologetic hybrid of Bloodsport and Rocky (1976) with a splash of Kickboxer (1989) thrown in (supposedly, Corman had caught wind of Kickboxer, another Cannon-aligned Van Damme flick, and insisted on lifting a few narrative beats gleaned from its trade announcements), Bloodfist lensed in the Philippines in December ‘88, two months after Kickboxer wrapped in Thailand. It was presided over by Corman’s man in Manila, Cirio H. Santiago (The Big Bird Cage (1972), TNT Jackson (1974)); scripted by Robert King (who’d go on to co-create CBS’ acclaimed TV series The Good Wife); and shepherded by Terence H. Winkless. 

Best known as the helmer of icky, Corman-backed bug shocker The Nest (1988) (which was also written by King), Winkless has never been the flashiest director on the maven’s payroll. Still, he’s a sturdy hand and Bloodfist delivers the rudimentaries with confidence and efficiency. It’s by the numbers and wonkily paced but in a cozy, enjoyable and reassuring sort of way. Just think it film as junk food; a Big Mac that doesn’t quite look like the burger on the menu’s picture, but, if you’re in the right mood, is a tasty enough snack nonetheless. The plot sees Wilson as Jake Raye: an Asian-American boxing trainer who sacrificed his professional fighting career for the sake of his half-brother Mike’s pugilistic aspirations when the older lad (Ned Hourani) needed a kidney. When Mike is murdered following a fixed bout in Manila, Jake flies across to the Pearl of the Orient to uncover what really happened and learns of the Red Fist Tournament: an exclusive knockout contest that’ll have the killer in attendance…

There are some brilliant scenes and moments in Bloodfist. The sexual tension between Jake and his blonde ex-pat love interest, Nancy (Riley Bowman), is nicely done, and the obligatory training montage features Jake expanding his skillset with a bit of Muay Thai and the unforgettable sight of Wilson tear-arsing along the side of an active volcano. The Filipino locations work as well as China and Thailand do in Bloodsport and Kickboxer, imbuing Bloodfist with an exotic air and injecting it with local colour. It’s not as bold as Wilson’s subsequent Corman-produced travelogue — the ace, Indian-shot spy caper Inferno (1997) [2] — but the sense of place Bloodfist exudes is highly effective. And though they become slightly repetitive in their choreography, the fight sequences when Wilson, Karate League World Champ Billy Blanks, and Southeast Asia Kickboxing Champion Kris Aguilar (as the film’s hulking, Chong-Li patterned baddie, Chin Woo) start brawling are great fun and impactfully staged.

Given a limited U.S. theatrical release that began in late September 1989, exactly a fortnight after Kickboxer opened [3], Bloodfist cracked the Top 20 for a single weekend — the first time one of Corman’s flicks had done that since Sorceress in 1982. Happy with the box office returns and the figures coming in for the video preorders, Corman greenlit a boatload of sequels, though only Bloodfist II (1990) serves as a direct continuation (and even then it’s pretty tenuous— for instance, Hourani and Aguilar return but in completely new roles). Bloodfist III: Forced to Fight (1992) and onwards are all standalones with Wilson playing different — albeit often faintly similar — characters [4]. The reason? Marketing shorthand. As Corman explained when Wilson asked him about the lack of connectivity during the making of Bloodfist IV: Die Trying (1992), “If I call a movie Bloodfist, it means it’s a martial arts film and you’re starring in it. That’s all it means.” 

[1] It did: upon its VHS debut, Bloodsport shifted a whopping 150,000 units in America alone.
[2] Inferno was among the last batch of titles Wilson made under his Corman contract. The wily producer stopped working with him when Wilson put his prices up.
[3] In several U.S. cinemas the two played opposite each other. Later in its run, Bloodfist shared theatre space with Phantom of the Mall: Eric’s Revenge (1989): an engaging horror romp whose shooting draft was again penned by King.
[4] Well, except the Wilson-less reboot, Bloodfist 2050 (2005), obviously.

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