Martial artist. Producer. Director. Fight choreographer. Jeweler. Disembodied floating head. These are just some of the roles that Jalal Merhi has occupied in his career. By his own admission, he wasn’t the best actor but did quite well as a producer and director with Film One Productions, the Canadian production company he founded in part by selling his jewelry business. I’ve always found Merhi to be a bit enigmatic given how many hats he wears and pies in which he puts his fingers during his film productions. With all this hat-wearing and pie-fingering, you’d assume he wouldn’t even have time to act in his own films, but time and time again he appears alongside at least one reasonably big name from the martial arts movie world. If there’s a movie out there in which he performed, but didn’t produce, direct, or distribute it, I haven’t seen it.
His debut film, 1991’s FEARLESS TIGER (aka BLACK PEARLS), was the film that began this strange pattern. Merhi, at this juncture, was an unknown commodity cinematically speaking. So, with just a couple of scenes in what I’d assume was no more than a day’s work, Bolo Yeung automatically became the “name” star that drove rentals and purchases of the film in the direct-to-video market. He plays a sage “master on mountain” who is completely divorced from the core plot and couldn’t be less critical to the resolution of the central conflict; his near-top billing status is every bit as strategic as it is disingenuous. Yet Bolo was the martial artist who broke the door down for others to do Film One gigs, because Merhi spent the next two decades working out of Toronto with everyone from Cynthia Rothrock and Lorenzo Lamas to Loren Avedon and Billy Blanks. (How fellow Canadian Jeff Wincott escaped the 1990s without working with Merhi, we’ll never know).
Lyle Camille (Merhi) is on top of the world, and not in that “studying polar bear mating habits in the Arctic” sort of way. A lot of graduates fresh out of business school might bum around Europe for the next six months, but Lyle has more practical plans. He’s sitting on an executive offer from his father, Sam (Jamie Farr), to run the family business and is also just months away from marrying his artist sweetheart, Ashley (Monika Schnarre). But when his party-boy brother, Lance, overdoses on a hip, new drug called nirvana (it looks like paprika but you smoke it like meth), everything changes.
That executive position at the family business? “Take this job and shove it.” The prospective wife and creative soulmate? “Somebody that I used to know.” The rest of the track listing for Lyle Camille’s epic mixtape of songs in response to hypothetical questions about his life is unknown. All we do know is that he dodges most of the typical benchmarks for adulthood so he can train at an elite dojo in Hong Kong to elevate his kung fu skills — he recently lost in a tournament to a stout bald dude named Boh (Glen Kwann) — so that he can confront a gang called the Black Pearls that’s producing and distributing the drug that killed Lance.
Despite his very personal stake in the Pearls’ demise, Lyle is completely unaware that the Pearls’ leader, Saalamar (Lazar Rockwood) has recently struck a deal with the shady Jerome (Lawrence Mayles) to start a North American operation. Before they can do that, though, Saalamar’s chemists must transcribe the highly complex chemical formula behind nirvana to computer disk. This is a lengthy process for which Saalamar would very much like his science nerds to hurry the fuck up, even though he’s totally ignorant of Lyle’s arrival in Hong Kong on an urgent rampage for revenge. In this endeavor, Lyle joins forces with a tournament buddy, Peng (Sonny Onoo) who just happens to be the Hong Kong cop investigating a string of drug murders, but has come up empty so far.
My first brush with this strange cinematic object was a cable television airing some time in the mid-1990s during the TNT network’s SATURDAY NITRO umbrella series of obscure action films. Between the acting — Merhi is green, Mayles is hilariously intense, and Rockwood is downright bizarre — and the prevailing pattern of characters feeling around in the dark until bumping into each other for convenient conflicts, I was intrigued and entertained but under no illusion that this was a conventionally good film. But I was very entertained.
With the central conflict of a man who chooses the dangerous and uncertain life of adventure over marriage and a favorable position in his family’s business, the film seems to be oddly autobiographical in reflecting Merhi’s own trajectory. When he sold off all his assets to make a movie and start a production company, was there a girlfriend at home who made funky art and was also taller than him? Did he have a brother who was hooked on drugs? Is he a real-life computer programmer, as evidenced by his character writing a crude program on an Apple IIe in which an animated character defiantly shows his bare ass to mock his adversaries? Just when you think you’ve got all of the answers, Merhi changes the questions.
In the annals of memorable chopsocky villains, the actor portraying Saalamar (at one point referred to as “the Mongolian Prince”) wouldn’t even be identifiable to most b-movie fans, let alone a favorite. Yet, I have this strange fondness for him that I can’t quite articulate, and so I feel it warrants closer inspection. Maybe it’s the ridiculous ADR that makes him sound like a hard-ass despite his grandfatherly frame. Perhaps it’s his authority over a dojo of fearsome monks despite no obvious fighting skills, or his command of a lab full of drug chemists despite no understanding of science. Or his classic character-actor face that suggests equal parts Billy Drago and the hair of 1970s Peter Frampton. And let’s not forget those headbands! If you were to put anyone other than Yugoslav-Canadian actor Lazar Rockwood (BEYOND THE 7TH DOOR) in this role, they’d be an afterthought. With his weird facial ticks and screen presence, though, it’s a performance that demands celebration.
If you want a movie that has fast-paced, creative action choreography you should really go watch a Yuen Woo-ping film. But if you’re in the mood for something with sleepy tournament fighting, a guy getting choked unconscious with a toilet seat, or a plodding, clumsy fight in the back of a moving garbage truck, FEARLESS TIGER has you covered. While there are some great martial artists in the film — sport karate champ Richard Plowden among them — the most prominent one, Bolo Yeung, doesn’t do any actual fighting and the choreography is otherwise unfulfilling, like artificial butter on white bread or raw tofu on a rice cracker.
The film has some decent stunt work — e.g., a ramped car and a man on fire — but the movie’s best (i.e. most amusing) action scene isn’t really an action scene at all — it’s the most hilariously random aerobic-martial-arts dance party you’ve ever seen.
Despite the lack of polish, major co-stars with consistent screen-time, or creative fight scenes, I have a strange admiration for FEARLESS TIGER above almost all of Jalal Merhi’s cinematic output. The plot is far-fetched with shaky character motivations, the supporting cast is a mix of oddball character actors and non-actors, and the film continues the proud action b-movie tradition of a protagonist with an unexplained accent that differs from everyone around him. While obviously lifting from blueprints set by better films, Merhi’s debut is a kooky but entertaining mish-mash of ‘splosions, kung fu, and bizarre behavior.
— This content was originally posted at Fist of B-List