Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Gweilo Dojo: RAW FORCE (1982)

The deadly three penetrate the secret chambers of an evil island empire! A fortress without walls, protected by an invincible army that needs no ordinary weapons! Not quite the first martial arts film not produced by a major Hollywood studio! This is ENTER THE DR – Wait! No, this is RAW FORCE! 

There is no arguing the impact of a little movie Warner Brother’s released in 1973 with a white-hot (pun intended) Chinese film star by the name of Bruce Lee. I know it’s been a few years, but you may have heard of him. Interestingly it was one of those films that hit at the right time and turned America into a feeding frenzy of martial arts mania. Granted it didn't exactly flop around the rest of the planet, but while other western countries were digging it, the US indy film makers of the ‘70s and early ‘80s were nothing short of obsessed. Almost a full decade later ENTER THE DRAGON’s effect can be felt with this low-budget knock-off that decides to take the AIRPLANE! (1980) approach and throws everything at the wall hoping most of it sticks. Writer-director Edward D. Murphy borrows the setting of ENTER THE DRAGON, but piles on the exploitation concepts with a shovel. A really big shovel. Not so much a shovel, as a Caterpillar earthmover.

On an island somewhere in the South China Seas, some  goofy-looking slavers (the leader, Speer [Ralph Lombardi] resembles Hitler with a facial tic) and some creepy monks (headed up by Vic Diaz) are making a dubious exchange: a group of kidnapped pinay girls are stripped, thrown into a cage and weighed with baskets of uncut jade, which the slavers are then given as payment for the girls. Well, all except for one girl who is deemed too skinny. As the monks gather around laughing at her, adding insult to injury, a white-guy samurai-zombie jumps from the bushes and cuts her down with his katana! And we're off and running! Meanwhile The Star of Los Angeles, a cruise ship run by cranky Captain Dodds (Cameron Mitchel who occasionally seems to forget that he's in a movie) and Hazel, the kvetchy owner (Hope Holiday), is taking an equally eccentric group of tourists to China with a stop-over at the very same island. In spite of the fact that the island is considered “a closely guarded secret”, is steeped in local legend about undead warriors, cannibal monks and an unwritten law that trespassers will be killed, there is a cheerful travel brochure on the sights to be seen on the island and the fact that the Japanese Imperial Army decided not to mess with the island at all during WWII. Man, if those crazy bastards didn’t want a piece of that place, you know it ain't going to be like a weekend bender in Tijuana. “The boys from the Burbank karate club” a group of martial artists, Taylor (John Dresden), Schwartz (John Locke) and O’Malley (Geoffrey Binney) are eager to get to the island and test their might, but are quickly roped into doing a on-board exhibition with the ship’s cook, Chin (Rey King doing his best Bruce Lee impersonation), much to the non-amusement of the ships other passengers who you can hear complaining in the background (“somebody might get hurt!” and “do that somewhere else!”). Hot blonde Cookie (Jillian Kesner) also joins in, though she fails to mention that she is a Los Angeles SWAT team member and kicks mucho butt in a bikini. What's not to like?

Other passengers include Lloyd the lush (Carl Anthony), who when catching O’Malley trying to pick up his wife (Jennifer Holmes), brushes it off handing him a “martooney” and saying “when we get together, the way to get by is pull out the booze and let’s get high!” Of course, he’s not worried about it since he has plans on hitting the famous Palace of 1001 Pleasures once in China. An allegedly Chinese cathouse with a full bar that is staffed exclusively by Philippine girls providing an excuse for more rampant nudity. Oh, and an excuse for the slavers to attack Lloyd and O’Malley after getting wind of the planned tourist trip to the island. Why do they care when the island means certain death to everyone including the greatest martial arts warriors? Because it will ruin everything! That’s the best explanation we get and quite frankly, that works for me.

From there it’s parties, bar-brawls and more slaver attacks. Any, and I mean, *any* excuse for some girl to show off her assets is explored interspersed with some off-the-wall characters. After the bar brawl, we get a birthday party for the most uber-Poindexter ever to grace a boat. What could we do to make this party craaaazy?! Why not have a scene with a drunk and topless Camille Keaton being fumbled with in the bathroom? Hey, have the prematurely bald, chia-pet looking bartender smash ice-blocks with his head, then serve the ice (eeeewww)! Get the Long Island male stripper guy (who looks like Tom Savini’s evil twin) to pull a drunk girl’s top open! What the hell, let’s throw in a scene where a hot chick picks up on a guy who turns out to be a Jesus freak and maybe another in which another hot chick totally offends the birthday boy by explaining what “fetish” means! You can say a lot of things about this flick, but can’t accuse them of making the film predictable!

Along similar lines Edward Murphy also has to be commended on bringing the term “plot exposition” to a whole new level. To provide some back story on the island, he has Taylor lay in bed delivering the dialog while his soon-to-be “special friend” is lathering herself up in a hot, steamy shower. The camera is clearly enjoying the view while Taylor’s voice is heard in the background. You know, come to think of it, I think “Hamlet” could have used a scene like that. Hamlet could be soliloquizing about poor Yorick while Ophelia slowly strips and... wait! Dammit! Joe D'Amato beat me to it again! This is why I am not a rich man.

There’s also tons of great dialogue, some of which is throw-away stuff in the background. During one scene you can hear the ship’s PA system warn the passengers against drinking the water on the mainland so as to avoid the bubonic plague. Another great bit is when Lloyd is trying to get some action on the side and the girl says “What if your wife shows up?”, to which Lloyd replies “I’m telling you, she won’t! We’re only going to be five minutes!” I need one of those noise-making key-chains so that I can press a button and hear “wah-wah-waaaaaaaah” whenever the need arises.

Of course eventually the ship is attacked by slavers and set on fire in what would be the cheapest display of pyrotechnics I’d ever seen, if I hadn’t seen CHILL (2007), forcing the passengers on to the island where they get to learn first-hand about the zombie warriors, cannibal monks and hungry piranhas! The action scenes here are good for what they are. If you are expecting the authentic Asian stuff, you are on the wrong voyage amigo. It’s goofy, cheesy white-guy stuff that makes James Ryan’s slow-ass moves in KILL OR BE KILLED (1980) seem like technical precision. On the other hand, if you enjoy this sort of thing, this is a freakin' classic of epic proportions. If I have one gripe, it seems like a missed opportunity not to have the monks actually shown eating human flesh. Everything else is in there including a bloody piranha attack using that stock footage of real piranhas that everyone seems to have.

In spite of the fact that the film ends wrapping up all loose ends, the final shot plays out with a bold “To Be Continued…” across the screen. Sadly, Edward Murphy never made a sequel to RAW FORCE (the mind boggles as to what that would have been like), but he did write and direct one more movie during his career. Maybe not quite on the same level as RAW FORCE, but damned entertaining in its own right, Murphy’s follow-up film HEATED VENGEANCE (1985) is a Vietnam War film that has the uniqueness of vision to see Michael J. Pollard as one of the best and the brightest.

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