So many b-grade action films of the 1980s and ‘90s have featured professional kickboxers as the lead stars, but few of them attracted strict practitioners of the sweet science. One might think that some of boxing’s finest trash talkers — from Roy Jones Jr. to James Toney — would have made the transition to acting with ease, but that was not quite the case. Marvelous Marvin Hagler starred in a couple of Italian b-movies (INDIO, INDIO 2, respectively) and Ken Norton broke into movies in the late 1970s with MANDINGO and its sequel, DRUM. Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini was prolific in supporting roles throughout the ‘80s, and Sugar Ray Leonard appeared in the 1997 Gary Daniels film, RIOT. With more than 30 acting credits to his name, though, few boxers had the dramatic seasoning of former welterweight champion of the world, Carlos Palomino. With massive, loyal fan bases in Mexico and Southern California, he was well-positioned for a move into Hollywood. Filmed in 1988, tested theatrically in 1989, and finally released to video in 1991, FISTS OF STEEL was his foray into action movies as a leading star.
Carlos (Palomino) is a former boxing champion, a doting father to a little girl, and a Marine veteran of the Vietnam War. He’s also a complete unknown within the American national security apparatus and its adversaries, which makes him the perfect candidate for a dangerous mission. His veteran pal at the C.I.A., Bobby Breenberg (Sam Melville), reaches out to Carlos after his team comes into possession of a videotape that depicts Carlos’s father being killed at a terrorist camp run by Shogi (Henry Silva), a sadistic drug kingpin and terrorist mastermind currently hiding out in Hawaii. Due to information leaks and Shogi’s familiarity with agency personnel, no one has been able to disrupt his activities or infiltrate his network. Every agent who got close shared the fate of thousands of innocents, and got killed. However, as an outsider, and compelled by vengeance for his father’s murder, Carlos may be the right man to cut off the “head of the snake.”
In addition to his military background, peak physical condition, and hand-to-hand combat prowess, Carlos has another ace up his sleeve: his hands were reinforced with steel, giving him exceptional knockout power (as Breenberg dubs them, his “puños de acero”). In looking over the file on Shogi and his number-one assassin, a former KGB agent, Katrina (Marianne Marks), Carlos disregards any illusions about a quick and efficient termination of his target, stating that “[Shogi’s] gonna die slow, and mean, and hard.” His only other demand of Breenberg and his C.I.A. unit is that he work alone, with his own trusted group of friends from Los Angeles.
One of these friends puts Carlos in contact with Girl (Kenny Kerr), a big-haired singer who seems to know every shade of questionable character in the nightlife scene, including drug dealers like Saylor (Robert Tessier). Carlos’s hope is that by scoring some narcotics, he’ll have a ticket into the supply chain, and he can then work his way up the ladder to Shogi. Will he be able to infiltrate the madman’s defense and put a stop to the senseless killings? Can he trust Girl and the shady characters he meets in the Aloha State? Will he be able to quickly and frequently traverse the island given the cost of gas, or instead be forced to ride a bicycle to get from one location to the next?
Its obscurity is exacerbated by an oddly simple issue: the title. Efforts to find it using your favorite search engine on title keywords alone will most likely lead to the 1993 Dale Apollo Cook and Cynthia Khan team-up, FIST OF STEEL (also known as ETERNAL FIST) or even the Sergio Martino film HANDS OF STEEL. But it could also lead to a Time-Life book about the Third Reich, a SKYRIM perk, a melee weapon in the multiplayer first-person shooter video game TEAM FORTRESS 2, or even a box set of terrible Chuck Norris movies (no joke). Such cases of mistaken identity almost feel appropriate for a film interested in themes of identity. Carlos is a Vietnam vet who gets coaxed into a covert operation by the Caucasian friend with whom he served, but once he takes the assignment, he refuses any direct help from that friend or the institution that employs him. Instead, he relies solely on his network of Mexican friends based in Los Angeles. For Carlos, his ethnic and social identity as a Mexican man trumps his experiential identity as a military veteran; he finds more trust and security among social peers than his operational cohorts.
Kerr prided himself on his ability to impersonate famous women, from Cher to Barbara Streisand and more. He was a trailblazer and pioneer for the art of drag performance, and a huge star in Las Vegas, but did not identify as a woman. It’s more difficult to find that line of distinction with his character, Julie “Girl” Darcel, though. Virtually every character in the film refers to Girl with the pronouns of “she/her” and while it’d be nice to think that Shafer & Co. were attempting to strike a progressive blow for transgender equality in an era that frequently and woefully mishandled certain gender expression as deviant or evil, that good will is almost totally eroded by an unnecessary reveal in the last act of the film. Nuanced questions around gender identity on a blog about b-grade chopsocky films is a rare commentary, I’ll grant you that, but if the topic makes you uncomfortable you can always watch some Steven Seagal movies for a macho safe space. Regardless, Kerr is really good in this role, and his tense interrogation scene with Silva was a high-point for me.
There are other identity-focused story threads as well. The C.I.A. operatives mention that Shogi is a man of ambiguous Middle Eastern origin, but Silva makes no effort to play the part in that way. As Katrina, Marks’s vaguely Russian accent comes and goes. In a scene that was clearly designed to offend as many people as possible, Breenberg dresses in brown-face and women’s clothing in order to surprise Carlos as a hotel maid, solely for the purpose of nudging him into a vacant room for a mission status report. All of this adds up to a wildly paranoid tone that presumably tries to demonstrate that things nor people are ever as they seem. The only exception is our hero, Carlos, the only totally authentic one in the bunch.
FISTS OF STEEL is a surprisingly original film that stands out from the pack due in large part to the strengths of its performances. Kerr’s performance is terrific and he consistently steals scenes throughout the film. Palomino is a likable lead star capable of carrying the movie on his back, and Silva alternates between suave and unhinged as only he can. Throw in an unpredictable script, solid action, two completely bizarre book-end scenes, and you’ve got a cinematic gift that keeps on giving.
— This content originally appeared on Fist of B-List