Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Gweilo Dojo: FORCE: FIVE (1981)

If you are a martial arts fan, you probably heard the news that Joe Lewis passed away yesterday at the age of 68 due to a brain tumor.  Lewis was one of the martial arts trailblazers in U.S. during the 1960s and 70s.  He trained with everyone (including Bruce Lee) and fought some of the top guys in competition including Bob Wall and Chuck Norris.  Naturally, Hollywood, hungry for anyone who could throw a kick, called and Lewis had a rather inauspicious cinema debut with the action flick JAGUAR LIVES! (1979). Surrounded by an all-star cast (Christopher Lee, Donald Pleasence, Barbara Bach, Capucine, John Huston, Woody Strode), Lewis got to show the stuff that made him a legend in the martial arts world onscreen.  Unfortunately, this James Bond-with-kicks flick didn’t really take with audiences, despite Lewis being a better actor than the wooden Chuck Norris at the time.  Hollywood decided to give him another shot and for his sophomore feature, he found himself in the capable hands of director Robert Clouse in the powerfully alliterative FORCE: FIVE.  

Not wasting any time cashing in on the Jim Jones tragedy, FORCE: FIVE centers on a religious guru named Reverend Rhee (Bong Soo Han), whose island compound has proven a retreat for affluent children everywhere. We’re told in no uncertain cinematic terms he is evil because he makes everyone shout “Love! Love! Love!”  Well, that and the fact that he has his henchmen torture a failed assassin by shoving acupuncture needles into his nerves.  Seems someone named Stark (Michael Prince) wants to get rid of Rhee real bad.  Back in the good ol’ U.S.A., Stark hires special agent Jim Martin (Lewis) to finish the job.  Seems a girl named Cindy (Amanda Wyss), a Senator’s wayward daughter, is living on the compound and daddy wants her back.  Also, they suspect Rhee’s religious principles – which are oddly centered on a bull – might include the rare 11th Commandment of “Thou shalt support terrorists with illegal guns and cocaine profits.”

Martin agrees to the job, but says he needs five top folks to accompany him to the island to get the job done.  Hey, including him, wouldn’t that make them Force: Six?  Anyway, we then get the requisite character intros.  Billy (Benny “The Jet” Urquidez) is shown selling ponchos (!) to tourists before he gets the call; Lockjaw (Sonny Barnes) is on the run from a motorcycle gang that he eventually beats up; Ezekiel (Richard Norton) wins a game of pool and then roughs up the losers when they object to paying up; and Laurie (Pam Huntington) roughs up Martin when he shows up blindfolded and dressed in a tux.  Hey, that is only four people.  Martin informs the team they are also getting Willard (Ron Hayden).  Oh no, not Willard!  That crazy sumbitch?  Yup, and the team gets their first mini-mission by heading down to break him out of a prison in Ecuador.  Things go smoothly as the team rescues him (naturally, he lives in luxury in jail) and they prepare to head to the island.  The ruse is they are assistants and helicopter pilots for Senator Forrester (Peter MacLean), who is coming down to check out the religious compound.

Once on the island, the team gets to work uncovering what is really going on.  You know something is up as Rhee is overly welcoming, despite his muscle bound henchman Carl (Bob Schott) giving the pilots faking a helicopter repair grief every ten seconds.  The Senator proves to be easily swayed as he is blown away by a performance of Rhee’s disciples singing “Onward, Christian Soldiers” while confetti chokes the air. Seriously, I’ve never seen confetti so thick.  Obviously this is where Jim Jones screwed up as pageantry gets ‘em every time.  Anyway, also on the island is John (Dennis Mancini), an undercover New York Times reporter, who soon finds out why Rhee is so into bulls.  Seems he has one in an underground maze and it mauls John to death.  Now ain’t that some bullshit? Meanwhile, Martin is sneaking around and discovers the cache of drugs and guns, while Laurie tries to convince Cindy that things aren’t what they seem and she shouldn’t sign her trust fund over to Rhee.  After all, should you really trust any organization that allows Tom Villard to be a part of it?  It is all setting up for a finale where martial artists Martin and Rhee must kick, er, face off.

It seems Lewis really got no favors for his second flick as director Robert Clouse is intent on ripping off his biggest hit, ENTER THE DRAGON (1973).  The set ups for both films are nearly identical with the island fortress.  The only difference is these people practice love rather than karate (although they do oddly have a great command of hand-to-hand combat when it comes down to it).  The production did at least try to surround Lewis with some capable co-stars. Urquidez and Norton are both accomplished martial artists in their own right and both men get moments to shine.  Norton’s highlight, however, is when he throws a circular saw blade into a man (something later ripped off in Schwarzenegger’s COMMANDO) and then quips in his thick Australian accent, “Thank God for Black and Deck-aaaaaaaaahhhhhh.”  To save the curious viewer 95 minutes, here I present to you the film's three biggest highlights:

The other problem with this film is it very flat, almost seeming like a TV movie that somehow got unleashed in theaters. It definitely lacks the big budget style of ENTER or Clouse’s previous Jackie Chan vehicle THE BIG BRAWL (1980) or even GOLDEN NEEDLES (1974).  The script also does the film no favors with the out-of-left-field end confrontation between Martin and Rhee.  Obviously trying to ape ENTER’s famous mirror scene, they have the men search for each other in the smoke filled maze.  Oh, did I forget to mention that Rhee has the ability to disappear at will?  This head scratching ability (it is never mentioned at all) kind of shows you where the film is it.  Basically, they don't give a damn.  It is one of those films where the characters take off at the end and the image freezes on the airborne helicopter as the credits roll, as if to say, “C’mon, let’s get out of here and head to the bar.” If anything, FORCE: FIVE’s legacy will be having provided the makers of ZOMBI 3 (1988) some artwork “inspiration.”  Seriously, compare this poster with the one above.

Sadly, this marked the end of Lewis’ leading man career.  Despite having good looks and decent acting chops, he didn’t do another film until the HK cheapie DEATH CAGE (1988) with Robin Shou.  He also had a small supporting role in the loopy-as-hell kung fu serial killer flick BLOODMOON (1997) starring Gary Daniels.  Both films get the Video Junkie Seal of Approval.

1 Reactions:

  1. Would love to find this film again! Rented the VHS as a kid over and over


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