In the right hands, almost any everyday object — car keys, a doorknob, a stale baguette — can become a weapon. We’ve seen this lesson repeated in countless 1980s self defense videos. In the hands of trained martial artists, though, these objects become even more dangerous. What would happen then, if you gave these same martial artists swords and spears instead of pineapples and hardcover books? For the answer, we turn to Paul Kyriazi’s 1981 film, THE WEAPONS OF DEATH.
It seems almost far-fetched now, but there was once a time when San Francisco was filled with leather bars and martial arts schools instead of unaffordable housing and tech startups. Grizzled bikers brushed shoulders with liberal activists. Our story begins in the dusty confines of one of the city’s scummiest booze joints, where a down-on-his-luck drunk named Carter (Louis Bailey) gets bailed out of a raucous bar brawl by his old trouble-making pal, Bishop (Ralph Castellanos), a man who doesn’t hit the off switch when a fight breaks out, even if everyone is dead or unconscious or outside hailing a cab. Once Bishop starts swinging his appendages around, no barstool, wall or bar memorabilia is safe. Following this rager, fortune smiles upon Carter when Bishop offers him a spot on a team running a special sort of errand for local crime boss, Foon (Alan Gin).
Upon meeting the gangster at his hide-out in the desert near the woods (!?) they’re tasked with kidnapping the daughter of a Chinatown businesswoman, Sue-Lin (Leemoi), who has refused to pay Foon protection money. Her oldest son, Eric (Eric Lee), runs a martial arts school, her youngest son David (Garrick Huey) is a skilled archer, and her daughter Angela (Nancy Lee) rarely speaks but giggles a lot. They’re all over the age of 16, so you’d expect them to have real jobs or at least more promising career paths, but alas — this is what often happens when fathers skip out on their family responsibilities. (No offense to you shitty dads out there).
Despite the best efforts of this fighting family, the band of mercenaries invade their home and kidnap Angela. During the confusion, Eric is distracted by Foon’s main muscle, Chong (Gerald Okamura), not just because he’s confused by Chong’s black leather and turtleneck in 70-degree weather, but because Chong is a really good fighter! You’d expect him to overheat in those threads but he presents a fierce challenge to Eric in short time, foreshadowing a climactic showdown. In the aftermath, Eric wants to pursue the goons immediately with David and martial arts friends, Josh (Joshua Johnson) and Paul (Paul Kyriazi), but Mama Bear has other plans: she’s calling her old flame, Curt (Bob Ramos) for support.
As Eric and company gear up to track down his sister and her kidnappers, the addition of Curt becomes something of an emotional monkey-wrench in these plans. This is the man who skipped out on his mother. A person whose crude remarks and flippant prejudice grate everyone around him. A man whose fondness for Hawaiian shirts is a crime against fashion. Eric isn’t the only one contending with internal conflict as he heads into battle, though. Josh is skittish about the lethal force this situation will require. David doesn’t completely trust his archery skills. Paul is contemplating his supporting second-banana status in this mission despite the fact that Angela is supposedly his girlfriend. Such issues are no easier for the kidnappers. Carter needs the money, but his heart might be too pure for this brand of crime. Foon’s squad of lady ninjas are more than happy to fight, but will they turn their weapons against the obvious gender pay gap that only serves to inflame a tense work environment? Overall, Kyriazi does a good job injecting his characters with believable motivations, and there’s even a fairly sordid family twist as we approach the conclusion.
But are there any actual weapons of death in THE WEAPONS OF DEATH?
Yes. So many goddamn weapons of death.
In a throwback to the American Western, Paul opts for the six shooter. Despite some initial hesitation, Joshua warms up to the lethal length and pointy death of the spear. David loves the sniper-like precision of his bow-and-arrow, and Eric can fill both hands with swords like few others. At various points, enemies wield guns, knives, and swords, and Chong even breaks out the dreaded tiger claw for the climax fight. Kyriazi does well by placing these weapon selections in context throughout the film, and the various callbacks and character development we see while the characters use them was a nice touch. Going into a film like this from an era when martial arts movies were very hit-or-miss, I couldn’t shake the suspicion that the film wouldn’t live up to its actual title. Thankfully, the filmmakers deliver. The orchestral score adds an epic feel to the exterior fight scenes and the action has room to breathe for the most part.
Eric Lee has had a long and productive Hollywood career performing stunts and acting in supporting roles. Fortunately, he’s the centerpiece here and despite some occasionally clunky line delivery, he’s a total house of fire. His character is jaded by his upbringing and turned reactive and violent by the circumstances, but he also has a cool toughness as evidenced by an early sword lesson to his kung fu students (“a sloppy mental attitude turns into a sloppy sword”), and a legitimately tense scene where he dares David to shoot an arrow at a target which he happens to be holding inches from his face. He’s not quite Martin Riggs levels of crazy, but the characterization was a far cry from the jokester I’ve seen in other films, and he gets plenty of scenes to show off the fighting skill that made him one of martial arts’ most famous kata champions.
Like a limp body flying over the bar and smashing only the bottom-shelf vodka, this movie comes out of nowhere to surprise and delight. This is the sort of drive-in fare that passed me by due to generational differences, but I’d always stumble upon during weekend afternoons on cable TV. Exploitation-era men-on-a-mission kung-fu throwdown in the woods (near the desert) … on a budget. Recommended.
— This content was originally posted at Fist of B-List