As a decade of rapid change, the 1990s taught us many lessons we hold to be important to this modern day. First and foremost: Wu Tang Clan ain’t nuthing ta fuck wit. The internet remains a wondrous junkyard of curiosities. Above all, we learned from countless action movies that a warehouse filled with a labyrinth of cardboard boxes could be a fine setting for an underground fighting ring, a shady double-cross, or an explosive shootout. The options were truly endless. In his directorial debut, longtime movie and television creative Kim Bass explored all possibilities for heavy-duty paper-based products in 1995’s BALLISTIC.
Tough-as-nails vice cop Jesse Gavin (Marjean Holden) is working on the streets as an undercover sex worker who also deals narcotics. When a rich john gets violent during a bust and flees from his limo on foot, she chases him down in an alley (twice) and kicks the shit out of him (repeatedly, with glee) before finally immobilizing him with his own silk necktie and pushing him back to a waiting squad car in a shopping cart she borrowed from a homeless person.
Despite her exceptional ability to complete dangerous assignments, she gets zero respect from the co-workers on her team. Woo (James Lew), Case (Jeff Rector), and Thorpe (Ben Reed) are misogynistic meatheads who call her “honey” and “sweetheart” to her face and a “glorified meter maid” behind her back while adding almost no value as members of their supposedly elite task force. Meanwhile, she earns high marks from her commander, Capt. Underwood (Charles Napier) who appears to be a pretty good boss but is dreadful at straightening out the pictures hanging on his office wall.
More than that, Underwood worked with and respected her father, Harold (Richard Roundtree), his former colleague on the police force. Under shady circumstances, he was busted for cocaine possession and received a stiff sentence to make a public example of “corrupt cops.” In her heart of hearts, Jesse believes her father was framed and is actively working to find the evidence to prove it. Underwood, however, wants her to focus on the latest task at hand – protecting a government witness under police supervision at a local safe-house.
Jesse, still in her sequin evening gown after a swanky city banquet in which she receives a commendation, heads to work at the motel room where the witness is stashed. Just seconds after the greenhorn on detail leaves to get sandwiches, Jesse and the witness are ambushed by armed assassins. It does not go well – she kills the attackers and escapes serious injury, but the witness dies. To his credit, he plays with his yo-yo up until his last breath; that is not a euphemism, it happened. The timing of the surprise attack is suspicious.
Following the hit on the witness, Jesse’s world of achievement and success is flipped upside down. Her relationship with her colleagues deteriorates further and they’re acting stranger than usual. Underwood questions her choices and her commitment. Her martial artist boyfriend, Ray (Joel Beeson), questions her sanity. Not even Lynn Sacca (Julie St. Clair), her one ally on the force, can fix the growing divide. Jesse rides her motorcycle across the city to take pictures of dirty dealings and shake down the city’s scum for answers. A close-up of a rat crawling among bullet shells and swarming ants is Bass’s warning to us all: the whole system is rotten, from the inside out.
Everything points back to Nick Braden (Sam J. Jones), a sleazy businessman with a vanity license plate who tells tasteless jokes and runs an underground fighting circuit out of his warehouse full of illicit drugs and guns. The fighters, including Braden’s big ticket, Quint (Michael Jai White), are forced to brawl on a stack of stunt mats surrounded by cardboard boxes. The audience typically consists of Braden, his first-in-command, Claudia (Cory Everson), a few random business associates, and their briefcases. There’s no drink service, explanation of rules, or fighter introductions. Quint has flashy offense and great technique when he fights, but it’s not enough to hide the most lifeless and dissatisfying form of illegal organized combat we have ever seen. Everyone looks sad or angry; nobody wants to be there because Braden is an unpleasant jerk surrounded by people who don’t like him. It’s the “DMV on a Monday morning” of underground fighting.
He’s best known for his comedic contributions as a writer for IN LIVING COLOR and the creator of young adult shows like SISTER, SISTER, and KENAN & KEL, but for a first-time director getting thrown into the deep-end of low-budget action filmmaking, Kim Bass does an admirable job of steering. He juggles all of the elements with composure, and it’s easy to see how he’s had such a lengthy and well-varied career, working with everyone from Gary Busey (SUCCUBUS: HELL-BENT) and Brad Dourif (JUNKYARD DOG) to Tom Skerritt (DAY OF DAYS) and Marla Gibbs (HEADSHOP). He gets good performances out of everyone in the cast, and the pacing of the film helps to keep it engaging through a convoluted and zany story of unchecked violent misogyny ruining just about everything.
There’s a decent spread of action in BALLISTIC, ranging from hotel room shootouts and warehouse martial arts fights to foot chases and even a rocket launcher attack (complete with a brief “missile-view” perspective). James Lew was the fight choreographer and stunt coordinator for all of the action, and it works on the whole, even if the presentation is basic. The fights featuring a young Michael Jai White as Quint were probably the most visually and technically compelling, but the climactic fight between Claudia and Jesse is another highlight, with both performers really going for it and talking plenty of trash. The film also features one of the strangest heavy bags / fight dummies I’ve ever seen in a gym.
Finally, no action film can excel without a worthy protagonist, and Marjean Holden really thrives in making this character her own. As a longtime actress and Hollywood stunt-person maybe best known as Sheeva in MORTAL KOMBAT: ANNIHILATION (1997), she cuts an impressive 6-ft. figure, dwarfing most members of the cast. She interacts with her screen-mates in different but equally convincing ways, whether playing the daughter to Richard Roundtree, trading barbs with Cory Everson, or handling humor with bone-dry line delivery and perfect timing.
It’s a shame that she didn’t get a longer run as a lead actress, because while performers like Pam Grier and Tamara Dobson helped carve a path with their lead roles in action-leaning blaxploitation genre films of the 1970s, that momentum sputtered out over the following decades, due to a dearth of opportunities for female action leads outside of Cynthia Rothrock vehicles and the “girls-with-guns” output of filmmakers like Andy Sidaris. The star-centered DTV action boom in the United States through the mid-1990s was a large and lucrative space but also an unfortunate boys club, with few projects dedicated to women or people of color. I would have enjoyed watching Holden bust heads in a peak PM Entertainment joint, with crazy stunt design by Spiro Razatos and all their usual explosive bells and whistles. BALLISTIC is a reminder that her charisma, screen presence, and overall capacity as a performer should have granted her much bigger opportunities as an action star.