With entering the new year 2018, and remembering all the great films that were released in multiple genres throughout 2016 and 2017 seasons, I was contemplating what I wanted to share with you today. It just so happened this past weekend I was invited to a lifelong friend and his wife’s home for what we humorously refer to as ‘Dinner and a Bad Movie’ when one of the family is sick and we do not wish to leave them out.
Even though the film we chose was not the pinnacle of action cinema, albeit extremely fun, it did inspire me to remember the past forty years of my life that I had been glued to either the television screen late at night, planning my first expense after payday being a trip to the local theatre or the Suncoast Movie Company store’s martial arts section at my local mall.
Now before you think I am about to exhort or sing the praises of this, possibly not a classic, yet definitely an unbelievably enjoyable chunk of cinema that I am sure most of the readers have seen showcasing both the legends of martial arts movies and their up and coming proteges… I am not. However, I will share with you the memories Sly Stallone’s fun-fest brought to the surface of another much older film our younger readers may or may not have ever experienced or even knew existed.
Now you are wondering, “My God! Talk about going way back in film history,” and you are exactly right, but one of the things about The Expendables, and watching my friend’s teenage children actually enjoy the film, was how many other films are the next generation of action lovers going to miss out on?
The premise of Stallone’s film is five highly trained mercenary soldiers, yes, they are ‘expendable’, invading a vicious dictator’s island to rescue a damsel in distress, and no one can discount the fun of Jason Statham’s knife fighting Lee Christmas, Jet Li’s fearlessness as Yin Yang facing the brutal giant Gunner played by Dolph Lundgren or the beat down UFC legend Randy Couture dealt with the WWE great Stone Cold Steve Austin in the end. But before they blew up the big screen there was another team.
The cast included Joe Lewis, one of the greatest point fighters and heavyweight kickboxers of the 1960’s and 70’s. He was also one of the very few fighters to ever defeat Chuck Norris and was also given the honor of being the first kickboxer to grace the cover of boxing’s RING magazine. Joe’s character Jim Martin led, what can only be described as, a cast of true martial arts legends against another equally skilled warrior, Black Belt Hall of Fame inductee and Father of Hapkido in America, Bong Soo Han.
Mr. Han choreographed, and stunt doubled for Tom Laughlin in the now famous films involving the character ‘Billy Jack’, and made a formidable opponent as cult leader Reverend Lee opposite Lewis and his team of martial arts commandos. Bong Soo Han can also be found in the movie documentary’s Modern Warriors and Masters of the Martial Arts presented by Wesley Snipes and has acted as a stunt and fight coordinator for many television shows and movies, even appearing in an episode of The Incredible Hulk.
The team he faced were forces of nature unto themselves.
One of my personal favorites, Benny ‘The Jet’ Urquidez. World welterweight kickboxing champion who by the age of 15 was sparring full-contact with adult level black belts. Not only was his character fast and agile in the film, but his ferocious spirit shown through almost as well as his iconic duel with Jackie Chan in ‘Wheels on Meals’ (not a typo, it is how the film was released), and his role opposite John Cusack as an assassin in Grosse Pointe Blank.
Sonny Barnes, California’s heavyweight karate champion, and who also starred in Battle Creek Brawl, was also in the mix as the muscle for the team, and rounding out the roster for the five martial arts greats showcased in the movie is Richard Norton.
Richard Norton, originally from Australia, was billed as the world’s foremost weapons expert at the time, but putting his skill up against the likes of Tadashi Yamashita would have left him wanting. Richard Norton as an actor can play both the hero or the heavy, and his credits include a lengthy career in the music industry, not as a musician thankfully, but as security and personal instructor to names as prominent as Mick Jagger.
His friendship with Chuck Norris landed him multitudes of movie and television roles, and of course appearances as the villain opposite Chuck on his CBS television series Walker Texas Ranger. Other films he is credited with are Cynthia Rothrock’s China O’Brien and even the role of the Prime Imperator in the 2015 film Mad Max: Fury Road. All ways a formidable opponent or ally, Norton adds something a little different to the Force: Five ensembles.
Most likely as one of the few members of the cast with acting as well as martial arts ability, but I digress.
Now I have discussed the actual five martial artists in the group, but I will not fail to mention the true beauty of the muscle Pam Huntington. Cast as Laurie, she was the espionage agent of the team, and even though she was allowed some action sequences, choreographed by her teammates, of course, Huntington was not per say a martial arts great.
She also co-starred opposite Korean actor/martial artist Johnny Yune in the American comedy They Call Me Bruce, and was an in-demand actress for commercials throughout the 1970’s.
Force: Five was anything but a masterpiece compared to martial arts and action films today, or even a few years after its initial release, but it was the time in film history, after the death of Bruce Lee and the release of Enter the Dragon, that cinema like this was considered a hit and the action genre was finding new ground with a different level of action star.
Instead of trying to train an actor to fight, the industry was exploring the realm of trying to teach fighters to act, and in some ways, the industry still struggles with this route to this day.
So, if you have worn out your Blu-ray version of John Wick, because I know I have tried, or you are sitting around twiddling your thumbs in anticipation of Donnie Yen’s Ip Man 4, then try out one of the obviously-not-a-masterpiece-but-definitely-a-good-time films of the 1980’s.
By Scott Davis
(Scott is a native of North Carolina, born in 1969 and a fan of martial arts and action cinema since Saturday afternoon Black Belt Feature was the must-see television show of the day).