Among the actors who played villains opposite some of the biggest action stars of the 1970s and 80s (e.g., Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris, Jim Kelly, Michael Dudikoff) there are few who loom larger than Mel Novak and Tadashi Yamashita. Both actors played important foils to heroes in major studio films — to the extent that the Cannon Films company was major, and it was! — but they also have a tendency to get lost in the shuffle when discussing the era as a whole. This was not just because both actors drifted to smaller films with less visibility over time, but also because neither of them got a major leading role as a point of differentiation to their villain roles. The 1985 film SWORD OF HEAVEN attempts to rectify that by casting one man opposite the other, thereby dooming one of them to the inescapable fate of playing evil men ad infinitum, despite their possible wishes to star in a comedy or a cheery musical.
Hundreds of years ago, a meteorite fell to earth and zen monks forged a sword from the remains. The custodial family for the sword was the Kobiashi family, and their modern day descendants include Toshiro (William Ghent) and his daughter, Satoko (Mika). However, the sword was recently acquired illicitly by a self-proclaimed “collector” and former special forces soldier named Dirk St. John (Novak) which, it should be said, is one of the great totally thrown together bad guy names in action movie history. These days, St. John runs an extortion ring in Los Angeles that targets the well-off (e.g., four-door sedan) rather than the super-rich (e.g., Mercedes), because it tends to attract less attention from the authorities. If the targets don’t pay, Dirk’s weapons of choice are a knife or his trusty garrote wire. As he tells his army of paramilitary trainees, these close-range weapons inspire fear, and “fear is our greatest weapon.” As he repeatedly demonstrates, though, knives and garrotes are also great weapons.
A Japanese police trainer and motorcycle enthusiast, Tadashi (Yamashita) works with the Los Angeles Police Department and educates them in the martial arts. One of his students and friends on the force, Patrick (Gerry Gibson) is investigating the recent spat of killings, which leads him to a brothel where Satoko is employed as a sex worker. During a lunch stop in the middle of the woods where he rides his bike, Tadashi crosses paths with Toshiro, who finds him sufficiently samurai to be chosen to retrieve the sword from St. John and his gang. All these random threads end up converging in the misshapen, cable-knit sweater of a film that is SWORD OF HEAVEN.
This was a weird one. The first half-hour of the story is all over the place, and it was difficult to tell where things were going based on the early setup. The first three scenes alone were randomly sized pieces from completely different puzzles. A meteorite falls to earth, monks turn it into a sword — scene. A woman goes to her sports car and gets strangled by a creep in the backseat — scene. A mysterious figure is motorcycling all over an endless landscape of sand dunes — scene. Stick with it though, because a bounty of strange cinematic treasures awaits. As the plot develops, the pace really picks up in the second act and the film finishes quite strong, with solid fight scenes (e.g., Bill Wallace vs. Tadashi Yamashita) and a climactic sword fight in a shallow river bed where a dude glows blue.
Mel Novak is certainly the best dramatic actor in this cast and he plays a fine villain — he’s both intense and capable — but he’s not even the most treacherous jerk on display. That would be Cain, the sadistic one-gloved pimp, played by screenwriter Joseph Randazzo. By pulling double-duty as both the scene setter and the character, Randazzo gives himself some of the most cringe-worthy lines of dialogue in the film, almost all of which involve a misogynist, homophobic, or racial slur. (Because apparently it wasn’t enough to throw a wheelchair-bound nun off a cliff, or terrorize the sex workers in his employ and keep them under the constant threat of being forcibly shot up with heroin). By any standard, this sleazebag is extra sleazy and deserving of the fate visited upon him.
Keeping with the theme of oddball choices, Yamashita joins the ranks of Bolo Yeung (in BREATHING FIRE) and Chris Ramsey (in LETHAL NINJA) as actors in martial arts b-movies who used cross-dressing as a not-so-subtle disguise. In this particular case, Tadashi attempts to infiltrate the “Pink Poodle” rock club — with a live performance by an actual band called Ninja: Warriors of Rock — to locate Cain as a way to get to Satoko. Tadashi neglects to bring a change of clothes and remains in the dress for a good amount of time after this scene, even fighting off some enemies. Could he have done all of this without dressing as a foxy brunette in a red cocktail dress? We’ll never know.
There’s an air of mystery combined with a touch of intriguing fog around this film. She’s listed in the credits as “Valley Girl Patient” but I can neither confirm nor deny whether martial arts star Karen Sheperd actually appears in this movie. Why any filmmaker would cast a world-class martial artist only to have her playing a bit part without any fighting is beyond me, but this is similar to the situation with 1984’s FURIOUS, where Loren Avedon was listed in the cast but was all but absent in the actual film. Four years prior, Yamashita pulled Sheperd into the production of 1981’s THE SHINOBI NINJA when she first began her film career, but I can only conclude that her appearance in this film was left on the cutting room floor. That’s your cue to start writing “Karen Sheperd as a martial arts Valley Girl getting evaluated for strep throat” fan fiction.
In putting Yamashita in a dress, leading bad guys on violent motorcycle chases, fighting tons of recyclable enemies, and pairing him with a stereotypical Irish cop simply for the high comedy of it all, this film was trying to portray him as a well-rounded action star who could do a little bit of everything. He doesn’t succeed in every area equally, but it was a fine effort that demonstrated he was every bit as deserving of a lead role as other martial artists of his era.
— This content was originally posted at Fist of B-List