Low Blow (1986)

Few things are as irritating as mealtime interruptions. Whether it’s phone calls from telemarketers, a hilarious text from a friend, or the sudden onset of food poisoning, these disruptions can turn that Sunday roast into a cold platter of unwanted leftovers. Some of us have a greater threshold for this phenomenon than others, making the good deeds of Leo Fong’s lead character in the 1984 film LOW BLOW all the more admirable.

Fong plays Joe Wong, a down-on-his-luck private investigator hired by a rich square to save his daughter from the clutches of a new age cult. Director Frank Harris illustrates our hero’s prowess in the early-going, as Wong awkwardly interrupts a diner robbery by checking on the status of his ham sandwich order. Instead of paying the cashier, he unloads his revolver on the unsuspecting robbers and as it turns out, he was just kidding about the sandwich. Not only does he have an itchy trigger finger, but Joe has a great sense of humor. His risky behavior isn’t just relegated to eateries. Any time he parks his rusty shit-box, he coasts into dividers and concrete barriers without fail. Or lots of fail, depending on whether your minimum requirements for bad driving include slow-moving collisions or pedestrian injuries.

As evidenced by his Indian bindi, his Jewish Star of David tattoo, and his raging Christ complex, the cult’s blind leader, Yarakunda (Cameron Mitchell) is confused at best, and at worst, drunk. Karma (Akosua Busia) is his mostly sober right-hand lady, whose fondness for conniving power plays is matched only by her frequent consumption of sugary circus peanuts. She runs point on every last detail of the cult’s compound, from the brown-bag lunchtime lectures, to the fruitless gardening of its arid fields, to the muscular and heavily-armed security staff, headed by the menacing Guard (Billy Blanks). Not only does this movie feature the most generic character name ever bestowed on Mr. Blanks — he’s one of 26 people credited as “guard” in the credits — but also the least-inspired utilization of his martial arts talents. More on that shortly.

While the volume of action in the film is high, the fight choreography in LOW BLOW is a little dull. Most of the stuntmen sell the strikes decently enough, but the pace of most fights is stilted and the editing and camera angles don’t help matters. Leo Fong isn’t the quickest cat in the room — he was 58 years-old when this film was released — but he holds near-legendary status in the real-life martial arts world. He moves pretty well and throws some convincing kicks, but the fight scenes aren’t especially complex or suggestive of his capabilities.

For reasons unknown, Harris and company made a conscious choice to eschew the technically slick and lean towards campy in the fight scenes. A group of enemies attempting to escape in a car gets an unexpected tune-up as Fong pops the hood, pulls out an important-looking car part to stall it, and dons safety goggles before a prolonged removal of the car roof using a metal saw. (He’s smiling the entire time because he loves amateur auto-body maintenance). However bizarre that scene may have been, the crown jewel might be later on, when Joe angrily stomps what appears to be a meatloaf disguised as the human head of a downed enemy.

The filmmakers had a nice opportunity to make the most of the film’s top two fighting talents in Fong and Billy Blanks. The latter actor’s character is built up as the cult’s physical enforcer and the story wisely keeps the two separated physically for the majority of the film before saving their encounter for Joe Wong’s night-time invasion of the cult’s compound. How long might you expect this fight to go given the performers involved? Ten-plus minutes? Nope, this isn’t 1980s Hong Kong. Maybe five? Ha, that’s cute. This fight goes on for roughly 35 seconds before the finish. Most of the scene is oriented around the Blanks character spitting two variations of “I’m going to kill you,” quiet posturing, and viewing angles positioned behind the fighters. And forget about a grisly death — Blanks is rendered unconscious by a judo throw and a quick jab to the mush.

With all of the surreal moments in LOW BLOW, I’m not entirely sure what the filmmakers’ intentions were. What’s the appropriate way to react to vanquished enemies waking up in piles of puppies, or protracted auto body metal saw attacks, or Leo Fong driving a car like a drunken senior citizen? Is it confusion? Laughter? Madness? While watching this film, you’re likely to feel all three. On occasion, martial arts flicks strive for a certain tone in between the fight scenes, but end up realizing something completely different. Intentional or not, LOW BLOW is one of those movies.

This content was originally posted at Fist of B-List

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