Between 1986 and 1990, the original NO RETREAT, NO SURRENDER and its two proper sequels were released internationally. In Europe and other regions of the world, these films formed the KARATE TIGER franchise (1-3). Around 1991, KING OF THE KICKBOXERS was released, but it was billed as KARATE TIGER 4 in Europe and some other regions of the world. Then in 1992, AMERICAN SHAOLIN was released in the United States, but it was titled KARATE TIGER 5 in Europe and elsewhere, but also as AMERICAN SHAOLIN: KING OF THE KICKBOXERS II when it was distributed on VHS by Academy Home Entertainment. That same year, FIGHTING SPIRIT was released under its original title in most places but eventually became KING OF THE KICKBOXERS 2 when it was distributed on home video in the United States. If the films comprising the KARATE TIGER franchise were a family, it might be said that FIGHTING SPIRIT is the original film’s third-cousin’s spouse’s sister-in-law.
FIGHTING SPIRIT is the story of Billy (Sean Donahue), a nice guy who made bad career choices and finds himself trying to make ends meet as an amateur kickboxer. While training with his coach (Nick Nicholson in a brief but hilarious cameo) he forgets to pick up his sister, Judith (Michelle Locke), following her shift at a local bar. When he finally arrives, she’s unconscious and about to be raped by a group of thugs led by Tony (Greg Douglass), a gun dealer with an opinion of women equally as terrible as his terrible haircut. After Billy sends the thugs scurrying, a stranger appears out of nowhere and offers them a ride to the hospital. Unbeknownst to Billy, the stranger is Tony’s older brother, Russell (Ned Hourani.) He watched the events unfold and decides that Billy and his skills are worthy of a small investment.
After Judith’s wildly funky trip to the hospital — the scene’s rush to the operating room is accompanied inexplicably by an orchestral disco beat — Billy finds out that she needs an expensive surgery to save her eyesight, but he doesn’t have the funds to cover the procedure. Instead of accepting an offer of help from David (Loren Avedon), his kickboxing friend and local businessman, Billy takes money from the creepy dude he just met an hour ago.
Unfortunately, there are strings attached. Billy quickly finds himself sucked into a filthy underworld where fighters compete in abandoned warehouses while rich assholes place bets and a funky wah-wah guitar track plays. Seeing unpolished potential, Russell pairs him with a fighting trainer named Murphy (Jerry Beyer) to hone his skills. While Murphy becomes something of a mentor to Billy, David is suspicious of the arrangement from the jump and encourages his friend to walk away and let him to pay off the debt owed to Russell. Unfortunately, Billy’s pride won’t allow it.
Despite some initial success, Billy is consumed by vengeance and begins to track down the people responsible for his sister’s attack. This lack of focus leads to a defeat in competition, and the relationship with Russell quickly turns sour. No slouch on the fighting front, David is forced to seek out Murphy for help to salvage what little remains in a desperate situation. The film’s villains do their part to make sure that no one goes unscathed. Russell is pure, hairy-chested sleaze and the glee with which Tony performs violence borders on child-like. No villain-filler here though, because both actors can fight reasonably well.
The action in this film is chaotic and the stunt team deserves a lot of credit for throwing themselves through walls to make Avedon and Donahue look great. Since their respective filmographies are so limited, I can’t say much about action directors Tao Chang and Ping-Po Chin, but almost every scene is painted with generous helpings of blood, sweat, and dust. Most of the decisive blows are given tight, slow-motion close-ups to highlight the impact, and props are used within the action scenes frequently and liberally.
Among several high-quality fight sequences, the standout scene for me was a pool hall brawl. Billy and David roll into the local billiards spot looking for one of the dickheads responsible for Judith’s injuries, and all hell breaks loose. The performers lay absolute waste to the set by smashing windows, liquor bottles, shelves, and every breakaway piece of furniture in sight. Avedon also incorporates some comedic touches by alternating between running his hands through his hair, standing idly with his hands in his pockets, and using props like pool cues, racks, and balls to ward off enemies. Is there an out-of-place disco beat blaring over this? Yes, there is a disco beat.
To say nothing of the awful post-production dubbing, the ill-fitting soundtrack very nearly derails the entire film. The music and on-screen action frequently form wild mismatches in tone, from the dramatic disco-hospital combo to the energizing disco-fight scenes and the requisite disco-training montage scene. I doubt composer Larry Strong wrote and performed these songs specifically for this film; it seems more likely that he got an arbitrary credit when John Lloyd mined a box of studio music marked “BEST IF USED BY 1982.”
The film’s gritty feel is further underscored by some visceral tones and the brutality of some of the kills. Some people get thrown from rooftops, one gets tortured in a dingy basement, others get bloody strangulation, and Avedon scores an all too-rare Martial-Artist Vomit Scene when identifying a body at the morgue. There’s even a scene where a character has each arm tied to the rear bumpers of two different cars and is dragged at high-speed before splatting face-first into a stationary car.
While no filming location is listed on the film’s IMDb page, it’s reasonable to infer that based on the odd music choices and risky stunts that this was filmed in the Philippines. The other critical indicators include cameos from Filipino action veterans Nick Nicholson, Mike Monty as an obnoxious drunk, and Teddy Page in the director’s chair (credited as “John Lloyd”). While most of the film’s accidental comedy comes from poor dubbing and the music selections, Michelle Locke’s performance as the vision-impaired Judith also contributes. Is it ever permissible to laugh at blind people in films? Usually no, because a good script and a well-trained actor won’t give you reasons to do so. Shintaro Katsu of ZAITOICHI fame or Morgan Freeman in UNLEASHED weren’t flailing their arms in pools or tripping over dead bodies. A lot of this isn’t the fault of the performer, who was probably just doing their best, but the director who deliberately stages the actions. Still, I’ll allow a few chuckles at a first-time actress trying to pretend to be blind in a low-budget Filipino action movie. But if you laugh at a blind person crossing a street with the assistance of a seeing-eye dog, that makes you an absolute prick.
If enough people stumble across it, FIGHTING SPIRIT has the potential to become something of a gem in low-budget martial-arts film circles. It must be said that for every element the film gets right — the fight scenes and sleazy villains among them — there are three or four other things that go dreadfully wrong (the music, the script, dubbing, set lighting, etc.) The result doesn’t make for a poor viewing experience though. On the contrary, the film’s underlying charm comes directly from its grit, grime, and random technical warts. There’s no shortage of wild, low-budget Filipino action movies out there, but for those who likes their sleaze-and-cheese with an extra helping of chopsocky, this one is certainly worth a viewing.
— This content was originally posted at Fist of B-List