Director: Toby Russell
Writer: Lawrence Riggins
Cast: Matt Mullins, Don “The Dragon” Wilson, Cynthia Rothrock, Chiranan Manochaem, Joe Lewis, Jawed El Berni, Gigi Velicitat, Yuhkoh Matsuguchi, Prasit Suanphaka, Wirat Kemklad, Mark Gerry
Running Time: 88 min.
By Z Ravas
The movie once known as White Tiger, now titled Death Fighter, has seen a long and winding road to release. I say this primarily because the film represents the last appearance by Joe Lewis, Karate Champion and friend of Bruce Lee, before his untimely death… in 2012! Reportedly, filming on Death Fighter wrapped shortly before Lewis’ passing, but various production lawsuits and the lack of a distributor kept the film on the shelf for years and years. Fortunately for fans of martial arts, any behind-the-scenes strife doesn’t show in the finished product: I’m happy to report Death Fighter is an appreciable throwback to the action movies of old, pitched somewhere between classic Hong Kong martial arts cinema and Cannon Video guilty pleasures like American Ninja or Delta Force.
As the story opens, FBI Agent Michael Turner (played by Matt Mullins of Blood and Bone and Mortal Kombat: Legacy fame) is on vacation with his girlfriend in Bangkok, Thailand. Only, his girlfriend can’t get his attention to save her life. That’s because Michael’s ulterior motive for the trip is to help his longtime mentor at the FBI, portrayed by Joe Lewis, track down a notorious gold smuggler and human trafficker named Draco, who operates somewhere on the Thai/Burmese border. It’s barely ten minutes into the movie before Matt Mullins and Joe Lewis raid one of Draco’s shady warehouse dealings, with Mullins facing off – ever so briefly – against martial arts veteran Cynthia Rothrock and newcomer Jawed El Berni (Ninja: Shadow of a Tear, The Viral Factor). Even Joe Lewis gets in a few licks – I should mention here his character is not in the movie for very long, but I have a feeling his loyal followers will be pleased to see him in action just the same.
After Mullins finds himself temporarily defeated and no closer to stopping Draco, a local police chief puts him in touch with Don ‘The Dragon’ Wilson’s Bobby Pau, an ex-Special Forces member turned mercenary and alcoholic. While Wilson is at first reluctant to join forces with the hotheaded American on a quest for revenge, he eventually agrees and drafts his pal Otto (played by newcomer Prasit Suanphaka) for good measure. It’s here that the pace slows somewhat, with the trio making their way through the jungles of Thailand before stopping in the village of a local doctor, portrayed by Thai television actress Chiranan Manochaem.
Fortunately, this village serves as the backdrop for one of the film’s biggest action sequences, and from here on out Death Fighter’s momentum rarely lags. After a few outings that were said to disappoint fans (namely Hard Target 2), fight choreographer Kazu Patrick Tang puts his full talent on display, planning intricate battles for each member of the cast. Matt Mullins showcases some devastating flying kicks that would even make Undisputed’s Uri Boyka duck, while Don the Dragon Wilson and Cynthia Rothrock acquit themselves well considering their age, as both were nearly 60 at the time of filming. Surprisingly, it’s Prasit Suanphaka as Otto who impressed me the most: despite being no taller than five feet, he fights with an unrelenting speed and ferocity that brings to mind The Raid series’ Yayan Ruhian. IMDB tells me Suanphaka still doesn’t have another credits to his name, but I would happily watch anything he does next. Female lead Chiranan Manochaem acquits herself well during action scenes, especially since I don’t believe she has any formal training.
The movie builds to the kind of finale you’d hope for, with Matt Mullins and Jawed El Berni squaring off in a rematch that delivers. Even if Russian baddie Draco ends up being more of a wannabe Scarface rather than a credible villain, it doesn’t spoil the fun. Fortunately, the fight choreography is captured in medium shots and free of the kind of fast cutting that so often cripples low-budget action movies like this. There’s probably a reason the martial arts are filmed with such reverence here: director Toby Russell, while having few narrative movies to his credit, was responsible for the infamous 1994 documentary Cinema of Vengeance, which sang the praises of Hong Kong filmmaking and for years was the only place I’d ever seen any footage of heroic bloodshed favorite My Heart is that Eternal Rose. Clearly, Russell studied those Hong Kong moviemaking techniques with a close eye, and he incorporates that style here, only with the updated and hard-hitting feel of Panna Rittikrai’s films such as Born to Fight and Bangkok: Knockout.
And while the storyline is mostly a serviceable framework designed to set up a bunch of fight scenes, it’s worth noting that this is the most charismatic I’ve ever found Don ‘The Dragon’ Wilson onscreen. His acting here has the natural ease of someone who’s spent more than two decades in front of the camera. Wilson appears genuinely invested in his role of a down on his luck mercenary prone to the drink, and his more lively performance contrasts nicely with Matt Mullins’ smoldering anger. Then again, maybe that smoldering wasn’t from anger: it must have been hotter than hell when they shot Death Fighter in Thailand, as there are several scenes where the actors’ faces appeared to be drenched in sweat, even outside of the jungle.
It’s not often a movie can sit on the shelf for five years and still feel like a breath of fresh air upon release. It’s also rare that a direct-to-video action title delivers the goods. Death Fighter accomplishes both. No matter who you’re a fan of in the star-studded cast, you should find plenty to enjoy with this film. If you’ve found yourself saying “They don’t make ’em like they used to” as of late, here’s one they did.
Z Ravas’ Rating: 7/10