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Friday, May 8, 2015

Force: Five (1981) review


Joe Lewis (Joe Martin), Master Bong Soo Han (Reverend Rhee), Sonny Barnes (Lockjaw), Richard Norton (Ezekiel Thompson), Benny Urquidez (Billy Ortega), Pam Huntington (Laurie Brand), Amanda Wyss (Cindy Lester), Ron Hayden (Willard)

Directed by Robert Clouse

The Short Version: Robert Clouse, Karate and Kung Fu cinemas one hit wonder, attempted to reproduce his ENTER THE DRAGON (1973) success with five times the fists and feet; while swapping out the Han Man for a faux kung fu preacher who worships drug and gun trafficking. Unfortunately, this modified retread fails to deliver much aside from bland action and bad acting. FORCE: FIVE is still entertaining, if for all the wrong reasons. Purported to have some 85 martial artists in its cast, this litany of real ass kickers doing their thing ends up lost in translation. It's twice as difficult to take the film seriously when your main villain is Dr. Klahn (Master Bong Soo Han) of the ENTER spoof, 'A Fistful of Yen', from KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE (1977). The limp script and direction hasn't enough FORCE behind it.

A team of five agents who happen to be martial arts experts are gathered for a secret mission to rescue a Senators daughter from an island stronghold lorded over by Reverend Rhee, a kung fu fighting religious cult leader. Recruiting young people from rich families, the Reverend indoctrinates them to the point they sign over their assets. Meanwhile, the Force of Five finds this cult of Christ is a front for drug smuggling and arms dealing.

Robert Clouse Enters the Dragon's Den again in another attempt to replicate his earlier '73 success with Bruce Lee. Considering his resume post ENTER, it's what you'd expect, but even more discouraging considering the level of talent involved. Having already tried with the likes of BLACK BELT JONES (1974), GOLDEN NEEDLES (1974), and the ahead of its time futuristic letdown THE ULTIMATE WARRIOR (1975), FORCE: FIVE goes down for the count relatively quickly. Had it been more like the Kitsch Fu of BLACK BELT JONES, or even the king of the crapfest that is KILL SQUAD (1982), Clouse might of had another exploitation classic under his belt.

As for the directors other martial films, GAME OF DEATH (1978) was like a bad dream, but Clouse carried on with the misguided US debut of Jackie Chan in THE BIG BRAWL (1980). His worst was yet to come with GYMKATA (1985), again recycling the plot of ENTER THE DRAGON; and then came the direct to video dreck CHINA O'BRIEN 1 and 2 (1990) starring Cynthia Rothrock. His last film was IRONHEART (1992), which banked off of Bolo Yueng's late-blooming international popularity after BLOODSPORT (1988) despite him not being the main villain.

Even though it's an ENTER rehash, FORCE: FIVE has the most promise of Clouse's action productions. Viewing the finished product, it's more like wasted potential than anything else. The script (co-written by martial artist Emil Farkas, and George Goldsmith) has got a little bit of everything for a signature piece of action-exploitation cinema, only it never quite exploits what it has to offer. Acting isn't a big sell, but action is... and we're shortchanged there, too. The production amassed a small army of real martial artists to propel the story. Producer Fred Weintraub boasted some 85 martial experts were utilized, yet only about ten actually do anything; the rest just act as punching bags.

There's a saying that a movie is only as good as its villain. In the case of FORCE: FIVE's kung fu criminal masquerading as a religious fanatic, that saying is applicable. Using that old zealotry magic, the Reverend Rhee (Master Bong Soo Han) somehow manages to recruit the young children of wealthy families, indoctrinating them to the point where they will eventually sign over all their worldy possessions and future assets. Apparently all the teens are in their parents wills already. The symbol of this temple of enlightenment is a bull. There's also a real bull kept hidden within a maze beneath the encampment that comes in handy when dealing with pesky interlopers. The bull also represents a metaphor for the films overall quality.  

Like the films hero and villain, Pat Johnson's choreo is uniformly dull. There's barely any variation in the fight scenes. Everybody, save for Benny Urquidez (who comes off the best of the bunch) looks the same. Joe Lewis, for instance--he throws mostly kicks, and it's the same kick over and over again. Everyone has a fascination with throwing high kicks in this movie and Lewis corners the market. There are tiny spots infrequently spread out that differentiate some of the fighters, but the editing and design of the fights doesn't give them any opportunity to stand out. A major disappointment considering the talent pool. FORCE: FIVE is a much better sell for bad movie lovers than martial arts film buffs.

Saddled with a bad boy image, the late, tough as nails Joe Lewis is considered one of the greatest Karate fighters of all time. He was the first choice to play Colt in WAY OF THE DRAGON (1972), but a disagreement with Bruce Lee led to Norris getting the role instead. Lewis didn't think very highly of his two American movie lead roles, citing bad scripts and directors who didn't understand actors. Lewis wasn't exactly Brando, but then Clouse was no Don Siegel. Lewis's lack of acting ability and his ego may have been why his career derailed so quickly; or possibly it's the fact he's as compelling as a slab of granite. According to him, he left the business because he "didn't like to take orders", nor kiss ass. 

A fantastic competitor, but zero charisma onscreen, neither Lewis's JAGUAR LIVES (1979) nor FORCE: FIVE (1981) were successful at the box office. With seemingly no prospects in cinema (he did appear in a few other movies later on), Lewis returned to martial arts competitions. Apparently difficult to work with, he was the type of guy who didn't hold back and wasn't afraid to voice his opinions on any subject. He had a fantastic physique and martial arts background (he won more championships than any other tourney fighter), he just didn't translate all that well onscreen.

Benny Urquidez, as high-spirited Billy Ortega is the most interesting of the lot. Of the title five, The Jet looks great, putting a lot of energy into all his fights; this is not surprising considering the full contact Karate pioneer has an undefeated record of 200 wins and zero losses. He was making his feature film debut in FORCE: FIVE. He went on to a successful career as an actor and fight/stunt coordinator. Modern Kung Fu fans will know The Jet from his classic one on one scrap with Jackie Chan in 1984's WHEELS ON MEALS. He would return in the Chan, Hung, Biao favorite DRAGON'S FOREVER in 1987.

Bodyguard and martial arts and weapons expert Richard Norton--who could easily be Norris's stunt double--is the next best characterized fighter in FORCE: FIVE. Having worked with Chuck Norris in front of and behind the camera on a few occasions, this was his second role; the first being THE OCTAGON (1980) as the ninja, Kyo, and another character named Longlegs. In that film, Norton also played a stunt ninja. Glutton for punishment, he's the one that's kicked through various windows by Norris. In FORCE, Norton is the colorful Ezekiel Thompson. He wears a shuriken around his neck that you know will get used as a weapon at some point. He and Urquidez are the most likable characters. Their dialog is basic action movie lines, but they manage to shine in contrast to main star Lewis's stagnant delivery. Norton has since become the most busiest actor of the cast, going on to a prolific career in action pictures.

Sonny Barnes had a lot of prior experience, but he's wasted in what is supposed to be a substantial role in a cramped script that serves no one. The Kempo and Shotokan black belt is the muscle of this Karate quintuplet. Barnes gets to show it off once in a while but much of the time his move sets are no different than the rest of the cast. For a 6'2" 240 pounder, Barnes moves defy his size; if only he were given more opportunities to take advantage of his build to suit his character. Barnes had roles in other films like TRUCK TURNER (1974), BLACK BELT JONES (1974), THE BAD NEWS BEARS GO TO JAPAN (1978), and THE BIG BRAWL (1980).

Hapkido master Bong Soo Han has the most colorful role as the main villain, Reverend Rhee. Master Han stated at the time he based the character on Sunday morning television evangelists and Jim Jones. The latter is the most recognizable, but the former, with their boisterous, emphatic posturing is mostly missing in his performance. Han hadn't been in very many movies. His role lampooning Shih Kien's Mr. Han from ENTER THE DRAGON in John Landis's THE KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE (1977) makes it problematic to take him seriously; not to mention his FORCE fights aren't finger lickin' good. After capturing, torturing, and killing a captured agent, you expect Han to say "Take him to Detroit!" All it needed was a cameo by Big Jim Slade. 

Another chuckler has Rhee say "Fuck you" in Korean--and this subtitle gets a subtitle letting us know it's Korean. Reverend Rhee, you have our gratitude. Like most of the other cast members, Han does the same spin kicks over and over again with little variance. An accomplished martial artist, Master Bong Soo Han wasn't the best choice to play this villain. He doesn't look the part, nor does he project any menace in the fight scenes.

Pam Huntington is the one member of the FORCE who had no prior martial arts background. She took Karate lessons a month before shooting began. She puts forth a lot of effort in her limited move set (again with the kicks), but her limitations are very noticeable with either quick cuts or removing frames to give the impression of speed. Some HK kung fu movies used this technique as well. It didn't work there and it doesn't work here. According to her, neither Clouse nor Weintraub were interested in hiring a stuntwoman so she got the job, despite no background in martial arts. The spunky Huntington next appeared in THEY CALL ME BRUCE in 1982.

A goldmine of cinematic potential and martial arts ability is totally wasted in this movie. As inadvertently entertaining as it can be, and to quote Sho' Nuff, it's movies like this "that give Kung Fu a bad name". Chuck Norris remained the most viable commodity in this genre, and even he was desiring to veer away from Karate roles around this time. It would take two more decades for the more complex Hong Kong style of choreo to not only be embraced, but adopted in American genre pictures. As for the FORCE, it's barely a footnote in the martial arts movie canon. Nostalgia Fu fanatics and kitsch flick lovers is likely the only audience to find favor with FORCE: FIVE.

This review is representative of the Scorpion Releasing DVD. Specs and Extras: 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen; original trailer.

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