Friday, May 27, 2011

Library of Classics: UNDEFEATABLE (1993)

It's been more than a year since I checked anything out of the "Library of Classics," so a fresh explanation is probably in order. In the early days of this blog, my main source for exotic movies, apart from my own collection, was the Albany Public Library. My local library has an eclectic selection of popular, classic and foreign films. Sometimes it's selection is very eclectic. The Library of Classics, then, gives recognition to some of the cultural center's more unexpected holdings. Just recently, Albany Public acquired a bunch of martial arts and blaxploitation films (Black Mama, White Mama was one of these that didn't quite, er, merit, the L of C distinction), so we'll probably have more occasions to dip into the stacks. But we'll start the revival with Godfrey Hall's legendary martial arts film from 1993, a film I felt dubious about as soon as I saw the director's name.

Godfrey ... Hall? Directing a cheap, bad martial arts film? Could it be?....

IMDB and Wikipedia confirmed my suspicions. "Godfrey Hall" is a minimal pseudonym concealing the identity of the notorious Godfrey Ho, who lives in infamy for patching together dozens of incoherent Ninja movies during the Eighties and Nineties from stock footage, newly shot cheapo fight scenes with guys in Ninja costumes, and clips of erstwhile Euro star Richard Harrison sitting at a desk. By the standard set by such stuff, Undefeatable is probably Godfrey's magnum opus. That's not saying much for Godfrey.

Undefeatable is set in the martial world of the United States, where the ancient traditions are upheld not by schools, but by street gangs. These gangs wander the mean streets, their leaders challenging one another to single combat. These combats are brokered by men in business suits; their financial interest in the fights is unclear. They seem to do no more than handle the money wagered by the respective gangs, and make no money from spectators. The only people watching these battles -- staged in such venues as alleys and warehouses -- are the gang members themselves or the family and friends of fighters. The rules are simple: if your hand touches the ground, you lose. That makes for quick fights.

Perhaps the most feared of these gang fighters is Kristi Jones (Cynthia Rothrock). After her apparent violent takeover of Erich von Zipper's gang, she fights for money to supplement her income as a waitress and put her sister through college. Undefeatable sets Kristi on a collision course with a higher-echelon fighter, a professional kickboxer nicknamed "Stingray" (Don Niam). Stingray takes his work home with him, regularly beating up his wife until she can't stands no more. Her flight, encouraged by her sexy psychologist, sends the already unstable Stingray over the edge. Already obsessed with the mother who abandoned him in childhood, he now fastens upon any woman who even remotely resembles his wife. He takes them home, chains them, whips them and kills them. Then he collects their eyeballs to decorate his fish tank. As the psychologist attempts to explain later, "It could be part of a ritual."

Arrested for illegal fighting, Kristi is befriended by a cop (John Miller) who knows some martial arts himself, though he makes no money from it. She resumes her fight career, defeating "Bear," a football player who fights while wearing his shoulder pads. If the current NFL lockout continues, expect to see more of this sort of thing. Soon after losing, Bear is killed by Stingray, the madman having taken a fancy to Bear's woman.

The degrees of separation fall away as Stingray decides that Kristi's sister is his wife and kills her. Now Kristi is dedicated to revenge, seeking out any of the master fighters in town who might know the techniques that killed her sister. Meanwhile, the friendly cop pieces together more clues, finally making contact with the psychologist who was Kristi's sister's teacher and the therapist for Stingray's wife. She tips our heroes off to where the killer might be found, and even though she never gives the address in the conversation we hear, the cops manage to get there anyway. Pursuing the investigation on her own, the psychologist falls into Stingray's clutches. With the almost evil cunning of the psychologist, she fights back with her mind against the madman. If he thinks she's his wife, she'll play the role, belittling his suspicions of her cheating. When that doesn't work, knowing his mother fixation, she becomes his mother, ordering him to behave. Miraculously, Stingray meekly complies, but the shrink overplays her hand when she offers to go to the grocery store to buy him dinner. The killer's abandonment anxiety kicks in, so he offers to go to the store instead, chaining "Mommy" up in the meantime. Fortunately, he's left her cell phone in her handbag near her feet. When the phone rings, she's able to reach the bag with her foot, step on it and tell Kristi where she is.

That sets up the first climactic fight scene, a brawl with fists, kicks and swords that pauses for a sublime moment when Stingray accidentally tosses a box full of packing peanuts into the air. He and Kristi strike poses as the peanuts rain down like confetti before they resume their combat. The cop arrives to save the day after Kristi injures her arm, but Stingray escapes. The second climactic fight scene takes place in the hospital, where Stingray disguises himself as a doctor in order to finish off the psychologist. He's intercepted by the cop, setting up the moment seen by millions on YouTube and acclaimed by many as "the worst martial arts fight ever filmed."

The thing to bear in mind is that that may have been the best fight scene in the movie. For an alleged martial-arts specialist, Godfrey is actually quite inept at staging fights. In one scene, Rothrock throws a kick and clearly misses her target by a country mile. But in the next shot, the opponent sells the kick and takes a wicked bump. The idiotic fight format doesn't help things, since the street fights can't help but be short. Kristi presumably knows the format by heart, but in the opening bout, when she's momentarily in peril, one of her minions has to warn her not to touch the ground (since no one else will explain the rules for us), yelling "No! No! You lose! You lose!") as if Kristi had never fought this way before. Every fight in the film is full of awkward moments; Undefeatbale is one of the least graceful martial arts movies you'll ever see. The acting is just as awkward. Rothrock is not without personality, but she's completely implausible as a street fighter.

Don Niam has become a legendary figure in some quarters for his performance as Stingray, but I found him overrated. He doesn't give enough for his to be counted among the great bad performances. He really does little but bug his eyes, flare his nostrils, flex and yell. His ultimate fight with John Miller is pretty hilarious, but that's as much to Miller's "credit" as Niam's. It wouldn't be the same if only one of them were ripping his shirt and yelling, after all. It takes two to tangle, and there's something practically musical to the way they go at one another with echoing ejaculations of rage. That they upstage Rothrock, who has to settle for a late run-in (though she does get the better of two lame one-liners) as a final indignity of many in this project.

Cynthia Rothrock became a star in Hong Kong in the 1980s and tried to cross over in the tried and true manner, under the directorial tutelage of Robert (Enter the Dragon) Clouse in China O'Brien. She never graduated from the straight-to-video ranks, her highlights including two films with Corey Haim, to give an idea of the level she attained. She may have been a decade or so ahead of her time, or she may never have had the charisma needed to turn her talents into real stardom. It's probably unfair to her that Undefeatable threatens to become her best-known film, but them's the breaks. At least she was never in a Godfrey Ho movie that I know of. This one is bad enough -- yet not bad enough to truly memorable. The Niam-Miller fight is not my cup of bad, but if it's yours, Undefeatable is a thermosful for you.



SIMPLY AMAZING!ONE OF THE BEST-WORSE ACTIONERS I HAVE IN MY COLLECTION!Villains like that are missing in the new millenium(i've written about it as well)!also nise snapshots!my system is in region 2 and since i've got this in US dvd,i couldn't watch it in my computer and take snapshots as well...

Samuel Wilson said...

Maestro: Thanks for the comment and the compliments. Embedding the fight video saved me a lot of screencapping and this movie has a lot of cappable moments. Niam is definitely fun to watch and the whole film has a redeeming exuberance that makes it worth viewing for real bad-movie fans.