Friday, December 2, 2011

Firecracker (1981) review


Jillian Kesner (Susanne Carter), Darby Hinton (Chuck Donner), Raymond King (Rey), Ken Metcalf (Erik), Peter Cooper (Pete), Don Bell (Japanese fighter), Vic Diaz (Grip)

Directed by Cirio H. Santiago

The Short Version: Lifeless, but fun "remake" of TNT JACKSON (1974) strips away the blaxploitation element and adds lots of sex and mild gore to the mix. Star Kesner does quit a bit of stripping herself in this mildly diverting drive in trash from Corman and Santiago again complete with HK style sound effects and fight scenes as well as a finale utilizing the same location as the climactic battle seen in the far more insipid ENTER THE NINJA (1981). Yet again the highlight of this skimpy, lowbrow entertainment is its use of a topless kung fu fighting heroine. Ironically, FIRECRACKER has a bit more pop than the TNT that was lit six years earlier.

***WARNING! This review contains images of nudity***

Martial arts instructor, Susanne Carter travels to the Philippines to find the murderer of her sister and discovers her last days were spent in and around a martial arts nightclub that also operates as a front for drug trafficking. Here you could enjoy a meal and watch fights to the death. Carter gets close to those running the organization and eventually falls for the top fighter of the establishment, himself a member of the drug syndicate.

In what is simply a refurbished version of TNT JACKSON (1974) with a lot of added sex and some gore, much of that films crew returns for this New World Pictures release. The movie itself is very ordinary and outside of Kesner's incredible (and frequently undressed) body, you're likely to remember nothing about it at all once it's over. The plot appears to have taken a jumping side kick to the skull as it's down for the count for the duration of its brief 77 minutes. The near nonstop action, sex and one of the most annoyingly repetitive soundtracks you're likely to ever hear for a cheaply made B picture will take your mind off things like the gaping plot holes, the lack of a script and absence of exposition.

No fight choreographer is listed, so I am assuming stunt coordinator Ron Pohnel was responsible for the predominantly average fight scenes. Still, they're a step up from what passes for battles in TNT JACKSON (1974) and resemble HK style action sequences far more than American martial arts pictures of this time period. Some of the action scenes do briefly step foot into the realm of believability and other moments look like rehearsal footage. However, this second stab at this non-story is a moderate improvement in exploitation "quality" from its blaxploitation predecessor, a genre style that had dried up by 1981. Santiago returns to direct once more in an attempt to make a better movie, which isn't much of a feat.

Taken as simple exploitation, FIRECRACKER excels despite its flimsy budget, although Santiago does manage some awe inspiring atmosphere with its sweaty and expansive Filipino locales. Fans will also recognize the arena of death as what appears to be the exact same location for the finale of the sincerely stupid Cannon flick, ENTER THE NINJA (1981). Working with a handicapped script and bad acting, the plethora of action and sleaze is the main attraction here. There's more nudity, more bloody violence and more fights which makes this a more attractive package than its skimpier forebearer. The only thing there isn't more of is a cohesive plotline. In fact, there's scarcely any story to speak of.

One of the films high points is the semi-hilarious sex scene which sees our two lovelorn combatants preparing to wet up the sheets but not before the villain, Donner, meticulously cuts Carter's clothes off with a knife. From both pants legs right up to her shirt and bra, her clothes are shorn away (the first of a few times). Then it's Donner's turn to shred his attire all the while Carter sensually whispers into his ear, "I can feel the blood pulsing inside your head." The crew must have shot this scene last as I can't see them ponying up for a new pair of clothes for these two.

The second is a sequence that was reportedly shot by Allan Holzman (FORBIDDEN WORLD) to add some additional skin. The scene has our lady with the thunderbolt kick being chased by two thugs. Running in high heels, Carter ends up losing pieces of her clothing during the chase till she's down to nothing but her bra and panties. It isn't long before the sultry and alluring actress loses the bra, too. This scene one ups the similar boobilicious battle from TNT JACKSON (1974). Kesner is far more convincing in the fight sequences regardless of not having any martial arts background whatsoever (even though the trailer would have you believe otherwise).

While she's hot to trot when she's onscreen--whether fighting or not--Kesner's acting is less inspiring, though. Speaking of which, the acting here from virtually everybody is of a porn movie level which isn't surprising considering the films tone and the way sex is spread throughout. Kesner was married to cinematographer Gary Graver at the time and she would go on to appear in a few more exploitation pictures such as the cult fave RAW FORCE (1982) and the overly silly and sexy BEVERLY HILLS VAMP from 1989. She passed away from leukemia in 2007 at 58 years of age.

Some will find FIRECRACKER a blast during its brief 77 minutes and others will likely forget about it shortly after its finished. The minimalist plot was recycled at least two more times with ANGEL FIST (1993) and ANGEL OF DESTRUCTION in 1994. FIRECRACKER is typical disposable drive in entertainment that does just that--it entertains; but there's nothing here--apart from the unforgettable Jillian Kesner--to sustain a shelf life beyond its meager running time. The alternate title of NAKED FIST suits the film much better. Under its FIRECRACKER moniker, the film fails to make much noise at all.

This review is representative of the Shout! Factory 2 DVD set paired with TNT JACKSON (1974) and TOO HOT TO HANDLE (1977).

TNT Jackson (1974) review


Jeanne Bell (Diana Jackson), Chiquito (Joe/Dynamite Wong), Stan Shaw (Charlie), Ken Metcalf (Sid), Pat Anderson (Elaine)

Directed by Cirio H. Santiago

"They call me TNT."

The Short Version: Largely forgettable throwaway drive in drivel from the team of Corman and Santiago is a terminally long 72 minutes containing some of the most unconvincing fight scenes put to film. Seemingly post synced and utilizing HK style thwocks and whooshes, this flick appears to be a quick cash in to steal the thunder from the bigger budgeted CLEOPATRA JONES & THE CASINO OF GOLD (1975) a Shaw Bros.-Warner Bros. picture that was in production at the time. With such a short fuse, this stick o' dynamite produces little more than a lot of smoke and no big bang.

***WARNING! This review contains images of nudity***

Diana 'TNT' Jackson searches the back alleys and slummy districts of Hong Kong for her brother's killer. Along with a martial arts teacher named Joe, the deadly duo do battle with underworld drug traffickers to find the man responsible for her brother's death.

Fitfully terrible, if terribly entertaining B flick that can barely manage a 72 minute running time. The film was apparently a popular one with the drive in crowd as the producers would see fit to remake this most thin of plotlines some three more times over the next couple of decades. Former '69 Playmate Bell is a stunner, but when she fights, she loses a lot of luster. Her stunt double is painfully obvious and those shots are the only ones that bring the frequent fight scenes to life. The use of in camera edits to give the impression of speed fail to impress here and this cheap-jack approach to "enhancing" a fight scene would later be adopted for a number of independently produced kung fu quickies.

Santiago made a long career out of directing disposable garbage, but not without some pearls among the fake diamonds. He also enjoyed a lucrative partnership with famed producer/director Roger Corman who served as Executive Producer here in a strange brew of blaxploitation grooves mixed with kung fu thrusts and whooshes in what has to be some of the most pitifully choreographed fight sequences ever conceived. Oddly enough, the whole enterprise appears post synced and the sound effects are of the Chinese variety and sound the same as those heard in numerous indy kung fu productions many of which were of an even more tasty variety of crapola. Santiago reportedly simultaneously shot a companion piece to this film for the Filipino market entitled DYNAMITE WONG & TNT JACKSON.

The film is frequently nonsensical and the near non stop barrage of fight and cookie cutter comic book characters never let things like characterization or a cohesive story get in the way of one of the longest 72 minutes on record. It's not one of the worst of its kind--not for a lack of trying--but there's far better examples of the form out there such as the much more extravagant Shaw-Warner co-production CLEOPATRA JONES & THE CASINO OF GOLD (1975) which was in production during the latter part of 1974. It's not too far beyond the realm of possibility that this was Corman's way of beating that film to the punch with this barely legible copy whose ink had run dry before the film had finished.

The one scene in the film that most people are likely to remember is Bell's hilarious "fight scene" wherein she takes on a room full of bad guys while topless. I can't even remember why she was fighting here, only that she was half naked flailing her arms around. The long shots of her obvious stunt double are under-cranked and as said above, feature the films only instances of passable choreo. Sadly, there's not enough of these to bring this below average movie to the level of other such pictures of Nubian dominance such as CLEOPATRA JONES (1973) and COFFY (1973); the former likewise features unconvincing kung fu/karate sequences, but at least there was the towering charismatic presence of Tamara Dobson, an interesting story and Bondian style trappings to maintain viewer interest. The latter had Pam Grier who likewise had oodles of charisma and sex appeal for several actresses combined. There is none of that in this generic drive in quickie.

Jeanne Bell is quite attractive at least, if fairly forgettable as a screen presence save for the brevity of the topless fight sequence. Fans will likely recall her from such notable blaxploitation hits as TROUBLE MAN (1972) and THREE THE HARD WAY (1974). She also appeared in the trash classic THE KLANSMAN (1975) as well as television shows like SANFORD & SON and KOLCHAK, THE NIGHT STALKER. Stan Shaw can be seen in the immortal TRUCK TURNER (1974) and the thoroughly bizarre and playfully offensive DARKTOWN STRUTTERS (1975). As for TNT JACKSON, this is the best the film has ever looked and its fans should be pleased with this presentation. Santiago's movie is harmless, if forgettable fluff and anything but dynamite.

This review is representative of the Shout! Factory 2 disc set paired with FIRECRACKER (1981) and TOO HOT TO HANDLE (1977).
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