Desert Kickboxer (1992): Finding Your Feet

Matty tangles with action auteur Isaac Florentine’s feature-length debut.

Having impressed fellow Israeli Menahem Golan with his action-packed short Farewell, Terminator (1987), martial artist and aspiring auteur Isaac Florentine was hired to tackle DESERT KICKBOXER for the ex-Cannon bigwig’s new outfit, the 21st Century Film Corporation. Shot across sixteen days in November 1991 on a $318,000 budget, what few notices Florentine’s feature-length debut received upon release were quick to dismiss it as just another chop-socky cheapie for the VHS market. However, Florentine’s work in the years since provides some much-needed context. Today it’s clear from Desert Kickboxer’s opening — an immersive dust-up that culminates in a moment of savagery — that this enjoyable romp heralds the arrival of one of martial arts cinema’s greatest practitioners. 

Of course, birth is always painful. Desert Kickboxer lacks the finesse that defines Florentine’s subsequent standouts, and pacing is an issue. That said, as the film trundles along, it’s obvious that the themes, obsessions and techniques laced throughout the likes of U.S. Seals 2 (2001) and Undisputed (2002) sequels II (2006) and III (2010) are all accounted for, slathered across the screen in embryonic form. Witness: Our flawed hero, Hawk (John Newton) — a half Navajo haunted by his past (he was a professional fighter who killed his last opponent in the ring). A greedy villain (Paul L. Smith, Popeye (1980)). Honour. Machismo. Vengeance. Redemption. Weapons and gunplay reduced in favour of bruising physical combat. And “whooshing”. Lots and lots of “whooshing”. Every punch, kick, swipe, and flip is accompanied by a blast of sound as adrenaline-pumping as it is dizzying and deliciously silly. Florentine’s most grandiose artistic flourish, present from the outset of his remarkable career.

Also present is Florentine’s ability to visually shape a scene, action and otherwise. An avowed fan of spaghetti westerns, Florentine’s output bubbles with the subgenre’s influence (cf. Savate (1995), High Voltage (1997), Cold Harvest (1999), Close Range (2015)). Though, again, rough around the edges, Desert Kickboxer’s Leone and Corbucci-aping visuals are crisply captured by Florentine’s Farewell, Terminator cinematographer, David ‘Dudy’ Namir. Dynamic and often artful, Namir’s compositions do a fine job elevating the visceral and emotional impact of the film’s otherwise dramatically inert script.

Written by Florentine and Jim Lotfi, Desert Kickboxer’s plot is essentially a dry run for Savate and Cold Harvest, and reads well on paper. In it, Newton’s Billy Jack-ish outsider is forced to play protector to Claudia (Judie Aronson, American Ninja (1985)) and her mentally handicapped sibling, Anthony (Sam DeFrancisco, a painful and ludicrously insensitive performance), when Smith’s nasty drug lord tracks them across the Sonoran. Alas, despite the appealing setup, Desert Kickboxer struggles because the bulk of its characters are woefully flat. Only Michael M. Foley’s blonde-coiffed henchman and a wildly over-acting Barry Lynch (as an evangelical bounty hunter — a part older brother Richard seemingly channelled in Cyborg 3: The Recycler (1994)) possess any semblance of personality. Thus it’s hard to completely invest in the plentiful scenes of brawling, regardless of how bombastically Florentine — as both director and fight choreographer — stages them. Still, it’s tough to be too critical. The film is a decent entertainment and, as a taste of things to come, a fascinating experience.

Produced as ‘Desert Hawk’, Desert Kickboxer landed on U.S. video in October ‘92 via HBO, who retitled it as such to capitalise on the success they experienced with their cassette of the Van Damme-starring Kickboxer (1989).

USA ● 1992 ● Action, Thriller ● 86mins

John Newton, Judie Aronson, Paul L. Smith ● Dir. Isaac Florentine ● Wri. Isaac Florentine and Jim Lotfi, story by Isaac Florentine

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