In FIRECRACKER (1981) a gang of drug dealers in the Phillipines also, as sort of a hobby, run a circuit of illegal death matches. They have their own venue called The Arena of Death with a fenced off ring they use for stick fighting and nunchaka duels. And this is 1981 so the king of the ring Chuck Donner (Darby Hinton) is a white guy with a mustache and a headband. In the opening he impales a guy on some kind of halberd. In the stands, though, there’s an American sneaking some pictures. She’s a photojournalist who’s stumbled across a hell of a sensational expose, only thing is she never stumbles back home. So her sister, karate expert Susanne Carter (Jillian Kesner), goes looking for her.
Susanne is a tough lady. Or as the bad guys say, “She’s good. Too good,” and “She’s a martial arts teacher. 6th dan black belt. Owns her own dojo in L.A.” For the opening credits she gets to do punches in front of a black background, like she’s Gordon Liu. A few minutes into the movie she’s already beating the shit out of two male intruders in her hotel room, even though she’s in her underwear. When she starts snooping around Manila Chuck’s boss (who I kept thinking looks like Steven Seagal’s boss John Fortunato on LAWMAN) sends him to find out who she is, and he wants to recruit her for the fights, so they start sort of dating. Since she’s supposed to be a badass, a firecracker, I assumed she knew what she was doing, using this chump as an in to the operation. Sadly, after she comes crying to him one time and then has kinky sex with him I realized that she has no idea Chuck killed her sister, or even that he’s a douchebag. She just has bad taste in men.
There’s one scene here that pretty well sums up the type of dude we’re dealing with here. She’s just been shown that her sister is dead. She runs to Chuck for comfort, and here are the relevant details:
1. She interrupts him looking at himself shirtless in the mirror spinning two knives around
2. He tells her the door is unlocked and doesn’t scramble to hide that that’s what he’s doing. Probly isn’t at all embarrassed.
3. When she cries “hold me” he takes her to his bed, and there are mirror tiles on the ceiling.
4. He starts giving her a foot massage and then puts her feet against his boner.
5. Then he takes out his knives and cuts off all her clothes.
Not that comforting in my opinion. To be fair she does seem to like it, and slaps him and cuts off his pants to even it out a little. But he only loses one article of clothing, she loses four. Plus, he’s at home, he could get more clothes out of the closet. She can’t.
The movie is kind of schizophrenic about whether Susanne is the Pam Grier type of asskicking exploitation star or the damsel in distress who gets exploited. She gets a whole bunch of fight scenes where she’s running around, doing flips, swinging on bars and ropes like an acrobat, beating up a bunch of men. She impresses Chuck by accepting a half-joking suggestion to fight a martial arts master who takes on all challengers on stage at a restaurant. (Man, I gotta get me reservations to this place.) He bets she can’t last two minutes, she not only lasts but wins by sumbission (armbar).
So when some street toughs start “hey baby”ing her in a parking lot you laugh and think “these motherfuckers chose the wrong lady to harass,” then she runs away screaming like a sissy, gets her dress torn, ends up in only her drawers and takes forever to decide to take the high heels off.
These guys are serious. A security guard who sees them ends up impaled on one of those scythes that tend to be laying around, you know? There oughta be regulations about that. Eventually she remembers she’s a black belt and she kicks one of them into a buzz saw. But she seems upset about it, it’s not an I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE revenge moment. Just a routine construction site karate accident.
One of Chuck’s co-workers thinks Susanne is working with the cops, so he makes her face off in the ring with a cobra. I’ve been waiting for an onscreen snake kicking ever since SNAKES ON A PLANE committed the sin of establishing that a guy was a kickboxer and then not having him kick a snake. Doesn’t happen here either, but she does grab the cobra, do a flip onto the top of the fence and then throw the thing in the guy’s face. Victory over man and snake. Then Chuck is standing there, shirtless under his white Adidas track jacket with the lion on the back, so they go for a drink.
The fights are pretty good and elaborate for an English language movie of the era. There are other characters I haven’t mentioned who get to fight too, and we see one of my favorite tropes, the decorative-sword-that-happens-to-be-on-the-wall-when-you-need-one.
Kesner’s a little slow sometimes, but seems to know alot of moves and doesn’t always have to resort to the stunt double with the obvious wig. Ads for the movie call her “1981 Winner North American Black Belt Olympics,” but she was the actress who played the Fonz’s girlfriend Lorraine on Happy Days. In real life her husband, Gary Graver, was the cinematographer for Orson Welles’ last film, but also for more than 40 Fred Olen Ray movies. He’s probly one of the few filmmakers to have a movie in the Criterion Collection (he was a photographer on Welles’s F FOR FAKE) but also be in the Adult Video News Hall of Fame. So they were a family with one foot in mainstream Hollywood and the other one in less reputable circles. The way I like it.
Hinton was a child actor from the time he was a baby. He grew up neighbors with Zsa Zsa Gabor and Ronald Reagan and played the son, Israel, on the TV show Daniel Boone. According to his IMDb bio, though, “he is skilled in the JKD concept of fighting,” in other words Jeet Kun Do, the hybrid system invented by Bruce Lee.
Their climactic face off in The Arena of Death is hardly a Lee vs. Norris WAY OF THE DRAGON level duel, but it’s fun because he seems to have genuinely fallen for her and can’t believe she wants to fight him to the death. “Hey, I don’t want to fight you. There’s gotta be a better way. Hey look, I’m sorry! What can I say?” Also because the miracle of high definition gives us a great look at the wax dummy head that she kills at the end.
I wish Susanne would stay an M-80 the whole time and not keep switching into a Ladyfinger, but this is still an entertaining romp from the prolific director Cirio H. Santiago. It mixes unintentional laughs with quite a bit of natural beauty as it works in some great scenery and documents images of traditional native culture from stickfighting training to a parade with garish masks. Maybe they got more production value by skimping on the music budget. I’m sure you’ll notice like I did that although the score is credited to Susan Justin and Paul Fox it’s mostly tracks lifted from SHOGUN ASSASSIN. It’s fitting that the music they pasted onto LONE WOLF AND CUB would be stolen for another movie, so there’s at least two movies that it doesn’t really belong on. Cool music, though.
Anyway, not a bad one. It’s available on a triple-feature dvd with T.N.T. JACKSON and TOO HOT TO HANDLE if you want to check it out.
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