Handbags at Dawn: Champions (1997)

Matty taps out to an enjoyably stupid martial arts caper.

An ambulance-chasing Kickboxer (1989) riff designed to cash-in on the then growing popularity of UFC, CHAMPIONS received a further boost when its star, mixed martial artist and UFC hall of famer Ken Shamrock, parlayed his shootfighting skills into a successful career as a professional wrestler. Lensed in the gap between Shamrock’s 1996 scuffle with the equally legendary Dan Severn — a controversial fracas that fans of UFC have since christened ‘The Dance in Detroit’ — and his WWE (née WWF) debut in February ‘97, Champions landed on video in the U.S. via A-Pix on 8th December 1998; six months after ‘The World’s Most Dangerous Man’ was crowned WWE’s latest ‘King of the Ring’, and a week before he won his second belt with the company. Alas, unlike fellow WWE grapplers The Rock and Dave Bautista — both of whom appeared in a few lower-budgeted projects prior to their current status as Tinseltown titans — Champions didn’t lead Shamrock to Hollywood [1]. It’s easy to see why.

Bagging an “introducing” credit, Shamrock is The King: the top bruiser in an underground fighting syndicate that tapes their deadly bouts to sell to snuff hungry clients. However, as Champions chugs along, it’s revealed that The King is as exploited as those he’s tasked with pummelling. In actuality, the jacked combatant has been fitted with a microchip and is forced to scrap, lest his darling wife suffer. Despite essentially playing an exaggerated version of himself, Shamrock works well in the role and walks away with Champions’ best moment when he goes bananas with a machine gun at the film’s back end. It’s one hell of a sight — and proof positive that, irrespective of how entertaining Champions is, this romp is the kind of tosh often labelled — God help me — ‘so bad it’s good’. 

Daft as a brush but never boring, Champions’ essence is typified by its unintentionally hilarious script, kooky performances, and overdone visuals. The film’s screenplay is saddled with the sort of pretentious dialogue usually reserved for art student house parties, and the cast — which, alongside Shamrock, includes pint-sized hero Louis Mandylor and a flamboyantly dressed Danny Trejo as the scene-chewing archvillain — eschew meaningful attempts at character development in exchange for a wealth of silly tics and gimmicks. Chief among them is the mighty George ‘Buck’ Flower as a wheelchair-bound manager whose bizarre ‘Irish’ accent makes Brad Pitt in The Devil’s Own (1997) sound like a Belfast native. Harrison Page (the elder version of the saved Private Ryan in Steven Spielberg’s classic war epic); Fred Olen Ray regular Don Dowe; tragic American Gladiators favourite Lee Reherman; and martial artists Paco C. Prieto, Lelagi Togisala, Fabian Carrillo, and Richard Rabago also appear, the last lot slugging it out in a few nicely choreographed tussles that helmer Peter Gathings Bunche captures in the style of a sozzled Tony Scott. 

Dreck for sure but great fun nonetheless, Champions was released in Germany as the penultimate film in the ‘Karate Tiger’ franchise: an eleven-strong series of generally unrelated biff-‘em-ups that, a la Italy’s sprawling ‘La Casa’ horror saga, were retitled and slapped together for marketing purposes. To wit: ‘Karate Tiger’ = No Retreat, No Surrender (1985); ‘Karate Tiger II’ = No Retreat, No Surrender II (1987); ‘Der Kickboxer: Karate Tiger 3’ = Kickboxer; ‘Karate Tiger IV’ = Best of the Best (1989); ‘Karate Tiger 5’ = The King of the Kickboxers (1990); ‘Karate Tiger 6’ = Kickboxer 3: The Art of War (1992); ‘Karate Tiger 7’ = To Be the Best (1993); ‘Karate Tiger 8’ = Fists of Iron (1995); ‘Karate Tiger 9’ = Superfights (1997); ‘Karate Tiger: The Champions’ = Champions; and ‘American Karate Tiger’ = Showdown (1993). To further confuse matters, The King of the Kickboxers is also known as ‘Karate Tiger 4’ in Hungary; Best of the Best II (1993) is known as the ridiculous sounding ‘Karate Tiger 6: Best of the Best 2’ in the Czech Republic and, sometimes, Germany; and Fighting Spirit (1992) is known as ‘Karate Tiger 6’ in several European countries. 

USA ● 1997 ● Action ● 98mins

Danny Trejo, Louis Mandylor, Ken Shamrock ● Dir. Peter Gathings Bunche ● Wri. Tom McNamara, story by Peter McAlevey & George Francisco

[1] Well, mainstream Hollywood anyway. The decorated brawler has since appeared in B-flicks Scarecrow Gone Wild (2004) and The Bunker (2014) amidst returns to the octagon and squared circle. 

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