Rival teenage gangs of martial arts street toughs rumble over territory and bragging rights. When one gang tries to go legitimate as a private security team for the rich and dangerous, and one gang member starts dating the sister of a rival gang member, and someone else steals drug money, and another guy comes from a broken home, things get really screwed up.
Phillip Rhee stars as Tony, a charismatic and likeable high school student. The only problem? He’s the new guy in town and doesn’t look quite tough enough to not be fucked with. Part of it is his affable demeanor but most of it is that he wears the same gray argyle sweater to school every day. (Unless it’s a Members Only jacket, wearing the same clothes on consecutive days is not a cool thing to do.) As a result, the school’s bully, Chan (James Lew) and his gang of thugs target Tony for a critical beatdown, unless he can pay the fee: five bucks. Luckily, the rebellious Young (Jun Chong) sticks up for Tony and challenges Chan to a duel under the cover of night. While his ample mustache might suggest he stayed back a few years, Young is a tough customer and has the leather jacket, black fingerless gloves, and occasional flowy scarf to prove it.
The bo staff is the weapon of choice for the rumble between Chan and Young, and it’s a legitimately well-choreographed fight scene that puts over Young’s skills very effectively. He dominates the contest and Chan’s gang goes scurrying. A casual observer to the proceedings notices that Young is a formidable physical specimen capable of quickly disarming his opponent and immediately offers him a wad of cash to work as private security. We then get the first of several WTF moments, as Young grips the cash in hand, turns his head toward the camera, and begins laughing maniacally before it abruptly cuts to the next scene.
Like Chan, Young has a gang of super-tough friends, and also like Chan, he comes from a single-parent household. During a rotating cascade of poorly-lit and terribly overdubbed scenes of melodrama, Young laments his place as a young Korean-American and his mother’s rampant alcoholism. Will she ever accept him or be a real mother to him? The dilemma frustrates him to no end and he constantly vents to Tony, but his friend seems to think that he should simply concentrate on school, the one thing he can control. Like Bill Gates before him, Young takes the path of “fuck school, I gotta get mine now” and continues to bust heads during the gang’s adventures in private security and random parking garage rumbles.
As Young and friends rush fist-first into the alluring world of working the door at Mexican restaurants and dance clubs, Tony catches the eye of the adoring Lily (Rosanna King) and they begin to date. Despite their innocent puppy love, this is a highly combustible situation because Lily is Chan’s sister. She attempts to explain away her brother’s dick-headed behavior as the result of their mother abandoning the family. The honesty between them and their mutual love for ice cream only fortifies their romantic bonds, and it seems as if Young is growing resentful. As the gang’s caretaker who took Tony in as a friend, it troubles him to see his friend happy with the sister of his arch-rival. This manifests itself in an awkward scene where Young drives around looking for prostitutes for Tony, and mistakes non-prostitutes for actual prostitutes as Tony shifts nervously in his seat the entire time.
There are so many more scenes just like this, none of which can be adequately described to capture the same bizarre and off-beat spirit that an actual viewing could. By the time Young steals a drug dealer’s money and the gang is stalked by Bill “Superfoot” Wallace and a samurai-hitman fights a gang member in what looks like an expressionistic art gallery, your head will be spinning with the pure and random fun of it all. Though, for all the goofiness and technical gaffes, the ending to this movie is bleak as all-hell, which made me love it all that much more.
The action overall is quite good when you can actually see what’s transpiring. While the poor attention to scene lighting really hurts at times, the choreography is mostly crisp, the movement is framed well, and the editing isn’t overdone. More than the technical components though, the roster of fighters helps these scenes succeed. Rhee, Chong, and Lew are all legitimate taekwondo masters and the inclusion of karate and kickboxing champion Bill Wallace was a cool way to bridge the 1970s and early 80s output of the Chuck Norris era, and the burgeoning talent and work of the 1980s Los Angeles taekwondo scene. I didn’t spot him fighting, but Loren Avedon — a TKD practitioner and NO RETREAT, SURRENDER sequel star — makes a brief appearance as one of Lew’s buddies. Mark Hicks, who cries over a birthday cake here, has a long history of Hollywood stunt work, just appeared in the action blockbuster FAST FIVE, and achieved Internet fame in the deeply unfortunate “Afro Ninja” blunder video. Also deserving special mention is Danny Gibson, who appears as the leader of the Spikes gang and has one of the most memorable looks in a film loaded with questionable (likely thrown together) fashion sense. Have you really lived unless you’ve seen a mustachioed man in a stained “California” belly shirt screaming “YOU’RE DEAD MEAT MOTHERFUCKER! DON’T FUCK WITH … THE SPIKES”?
The terrible lighting. The dubbed dialogue. The fingerless black leather gloves. The VHS box art that looks like it belongs on the cover of some obscure side-scrolling Data East beat-em-up fighting game from the 8-bit era. You get all of this and more in the highly enjoyable gang violence romp that is L.A. STREETFIGHTERS. While it will never win points on polish or artistic achievement, the film is legitimately historic for other reasons. It’s a cinematic flashpoint for some of the biggest figures in the American martial arts b-movie scene. Phillip Rhee went on to head up the infamous BEST OF THE BEST franchise. James Lew would become one of the most prolific stunt performers in Hollywood. Loren Avedon starred in some of Seasonal Films’ best output for the international market and played prominent heroes and villains for the next 20 years. While Jun Chong never achieved the same longevity cinematically, this is his most consistently entertaining piece of work and a legit midnight movie gem.
— This content was originally posted at Fist of B-List
I saw MIAMI CONNECTION (from the same director) a few years after this one, and was surprised by the many similarities, down to the love interest’s brother being the bad guy. I’d say that Richard Park wanted to make a sunnier version of L.A. STREETFIGHTERS, except MIAMI also ended on a brutally down note, which Y.K. Kim replaced with a far more upbeat conclusion. I mean, c’mon, Park, lighten up, buddy. I bet Park also wanted the group of buddies in MIAMI to attend high school, but Kim was probably like “No way, let’s have them go to college, where it’s not unusual to see dudes in their 30s attend class.”
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You’re right on with that comparison. I’ve seen those two plus AMERICAN CHINATOWN and for a guy who made 22 films in his career, it doesn’t feel like enough. But the man reveled in a bummer ending. Wild to see that he worked with everyone from Erik Estrada (in LOOK AT ME AMERICA, which also has inter-cultural parental relationship conflict) and Karen Kim to Robert Z’Dar and Bobby Kim (the Korean Charles Bronson). He also made the intriguing-on-title-alone, CHINATOWN 2.
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