High Voltage (1997): Sister Act

Matty dissects a lively Shannon Lee vehicle helmed by action wiz Isaac Florentine.

Daughter of Bruce, sister of Brandon, Shannon Lee had no plans to follow in her father or brother’s footsteps. Music was her ‘thing’. That, however, changed when she served as Brandon’s P.A. on Rapid Fire (1992). Fascinated by her elder sibling’s artistry, Lee was bitten by the acting bug. While honing her craft in local theatre, Lee started training in Jeet Kune Do — the martial arts discipline her late pop developed — and, after Brandon’s death on the set of The Crow (1994), she found herself positioned as a B-movie action star of the future by producers keen to capitalise on her lineage.

In October ‘95, Lee was slated to headline a hip indie thriller called ‘Big Killing in Little Saigon’ alongside James Hong. Attached to direct was Sam Firstenberg (American Ninja (1985), Cyborg Cop (1993)). It would, though, be another year before the project came to fruition as HIGH VOLTAGE. In the interim, Hong was replaced by the almost equally prolific George Cheung, and Firstenberg was switched for fellow action maverick Isaac Florentine. Florentine had previously worked with Lee on WMAC Masters (she hosted the kids’ TV show’s first season) and with High Voltage’s exec producer, former 21st Century Film president Ami Artzi, on Desert Kickboxer (1992).

Credited to Mike Mains but tweaked by Arnold Greenspan [1], High Voltage’s Charley Varrick (1973)-esque plot finds a quintet of small-fry thieves (led by Antonio Sabato Jr.) biting off more than they can chew when they rob a bank that’s actually a front for money laundering. Understandably, the Vietnamese mob boss (Cheung) in charge of the operation doesn’t take too kindly to the intrusion — especially when his mistress (Lee) falls in with the hoods [2] — and soon Sabato Jr. and co. are on the lam with a fleet of gangsters in hot pursuit.

Buoyed by the same humorous, Tarantino-tinged patter typical of so many other crime capers of the era (DTV and otherwise), High Voltage’s largely well-defined characters and its generally capable cast fare better than most. Accentuated by Florentine’s usual spaghetti western licks, Sabato Jr. exudes an appealing Eastwoodian cool, and the attraction between the ex-Calvin Klein model and Lee is sparky and believable. Lochlyn Munro is wonderful as Sabato Jr.’s cocky right-hand man; William Zabka is in fine form as a conniving Hell’s Angel; and Sabato Jr.’s real-life dad, Italian exploitation hero Antonio Sabato Sr., nearly steals the show with an exuberant cameo in the film’s final third. Less successful is Cheung. Despite a Herculean effort, he’s saddled with a listless part. Said trait extends to the deadweight roles inhabited by Amy Smart and scripter Mains. The horrendously wooden latter was presumably able to shoehorn himself into High Voltage via whatever contract he and co-producer Ivon Visalli signed to get ‘Big Killing in Little Saigon’ produced to begin with.

Curiously light on chop-socky action (the bar fight, mind, is a real ripper), High Voltage is more gun-fu than kung-fu with Florentine’s boisterous direction indicative of John Woo et al’s growing influence on Hollywood action filmmaking of all budgets. Though frequently deployed to paper over the gaps in High Voltage’s narrative, the helmer — alongside armorer Mike Tristano and stunt coordinator Koichi Sakamoto (a key collaborator during Florentine’s Power Rangers tenure) — unleashes gunplay with gusto, imbuing the film with an exhilarating pace befitting of its name. Kudos to Lee, too. It can’t have been easy being surrounded by such powerful weaponry and chaotically-pitched carnage considering… 

Like Florentine’s previous flick, Savate (1995), High Voltage premiered stateside on HBO (on 13th March 1998) and hit tape through A-Pix six months later. It landed on U.K. shores in summer ‘99 courtesy of Film 2000.

USA ● 1997 ● Action, Thriller ● 92mins

Antonio Sabato Jr., Shannon Lee, George Cheung ● Dir. Isaac Florentine Wri. Mike Mains, Arnold Greenspan (uncredited)

[1] Greenspan, a journeyman screenwriter-turned-novelist with a wealth of unproduced scripts and unacknowledged rewrite assignments to his credit, receives a prominent ‘special thanks’ at the film’s close.
[2] Lee and Cheung paired again a few months later on an episode of Martial Law (S1, E8: ‘Take Out’). They played father and daughter. At the time, Martial Law’s co-producers, The Ruddy Morgan Organization, had Lee tied to a development deal.

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