Matty takes a look at a quality suspense thriller and contemplates its co-scripter/producer/star’s brush with the big leagues.
Netflix smash Cobra Kai has revitalised Thomas Ian Griffith. For the show’s fourth and fifth season, Griffith was coaxed out of retirement to reprise the role of Terry Silver, the antagonist he played in The Karate Kid III (1989). Consequently, Griffith is at an all-time high career-wise — but it’s worth remembering that, back in the early ‘90s, the star was briefly positioned as The Next Big Thing™ as far as American action movies were concerned.
Following Karate Kid III, Griffith was cast in Rock Hudson (1990). Despite the controversial made-for-TV biopic’s panning, Griffith’s nuanced performance as ol’ Rock was praised and, come 1992, the 6’5” actor’s towering physicality and impressive Taekwondo skills led New Line Cinema to snap him up on a three picture deal. The first — and, sadly, only — film to stem from that pact was Excessive Force (1993): a hugely enjoyable caper whose critical and commercial tanking quickly quashed New Line’s plans to establish Griffith as their answer to Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme. However, prior to Excessive Force’s theatrical roll out in February ‘93, Griffith’s stroke was so strong that VHS favourites Imperial Entertainment hastily acquired another film that, like New Line’s vehicle, the multi-talented bruiser co-scripted, co-produced and headlined: ULTERIOR MOTIVES (1992).
Shot as ‘Kill Fee’ in July 1990 — six months after Rock Hudson premiered on ABC, and two months after Griffith and his wife/creative partner Mary Page Keller’s debut venture as producers, Night of the Warrior (1991) with Lorenzo Lamas, wrapped — Imperial issued Ulterior Motives on video in the U.S. on 3rd January ‘93, five weeks before Excessive Force thudded into stateside theatres. Ulterior Motives did decent business on tape thanks, in no small part, to Imperial’s enterprising marketing campaign. Their approach was dual-pronged. They assigned the film taglines that both called to mind New Line’s incoming Griffith joint (“In his world, brute force isn’t enough”) and rode the coattails of the rival studio’s intentions (“You’ve seen Norris, Seagal and Van Damme. Now… Meet the new contender!”). Ingenious, without question, albeit not entirely accurate. As good as Ulterior Motives is, it’s hardly the stringent slug-a-thon Imperial’s come-on and samurai sword-centric key art promised. There’s a reason that, even today, baser martial arts action fans (incorrectly) think the film a disappointment.
While scant, the high-kicking combat on display is vigorously delivered by Griffith, and it’s sturdily staged and assembled. It’s just Ulterior Motives is more a taut suspense-thriller with a few chop-socky licks than it is a wall-to-wall martial arts extravaganza. Co-scripted and directed by James Becket, the plot sees Griffith as Jack Blaylock: a private investigator operating from a booth in a Japanese restaurant. Blaylock has a steely stare, a charming smile, and a suspiciously short fuse at odds with his otherwise genial and somewhat quirky demeanor. When we’re introduced to him, it’s through the thoroughly bemused eyes of Erica (Keller): a career-minded reporter who procures his services to help her get the scoop on the nefarious goings on at a shady Japanese-American aerospace firm. Naturally, said shenanigans involve industrial espionage, the Yakuza, and people in prominent positions of power — and as a bit of romance develops between Blaylock and Erica, the pair of them are shuttled along a wonderfully tricksy narrative where nothing is as it seems…
A friend of Griffith’s Karate Kid III helmer John G. Avildsen, Becket was a former human rights lawyer with a background in journalism and documentary filmmaking — a form the octogenarian has returned to in recent years. His specialties are social and political topics, traits that bleed into distinguished dramatic work such as Natural Causes (1994), The Best Revenge (1996), Plato’s Run (1997), Southern Cross (1999), and, of course, Ulterior Motives. Broadly speaking, Griffith and Becket’s film is part of the same run of ‘east meets west’ action and thriller flicks as Black Rain (1989), Showdown in Little Tokyo (1991), American Yakuza (1992), Blue Tiger (1993), Rising Sun (1993), and Red Sun Rising (1994); a cycle rooted in the then-growing apprehensions over Japan’s ballooning influence on American business and culture. Given his interests and personal obsessions, Becket makes several thought-provoking — and wholly correct — points about those who use xenophobia and jingoistic propaganda for their own ends. The world is a chess board and those of us without sizable financial or diplomatic sway are simply pawns at the mercy of an inherently greedy and tyrannical system (embodied here by the late Ken Howard’s quietly malevolent spin doctor).
Though unashamedly politically fixated, Becket’s musings are never at the expense of the meat n’ potatoes. As mentioned, at its core Ulterior Motives is a rock solid suspenser. Understandably, Griffith and Keller’s chemistry is electric and authentic, and Becket generates tension and intrigue with care and attention. There’s a satisfying, Hitchcockian bent to the film’s twitchy scenes of chicanery with Sister, Sister (1987) lensman Stephen M. Katz’s creeping camerawork complementing the twists and turns at the heart of Griffith and Becket’s Russian Doll-esque story. The duo clearly relish keeping us off-balance, and Ulterior Motives boasts several whopping great surprises including a couple of truly shocking moments of violence. To say much more would spoil them — but since Griffith effectively submits three stupendous performances across the film’s ninety-one minutes, it’s flabbergasting that New Line ruled him a bust as soon as they did. Perhaps if ‘The House That Freddy Built’ had snagged the charismatic Ulterior Motives and paraded it around cinemas circa ‘91 — arguably the peak of Seagal and Van Damme fever in terms of ticket sales and rental receipts — Griffith could have become the iconic studio cornerstone they intended.
At least he’s finally getting his due.