Weapons of Death (1980)
Our movie today is a low-budget mix of kung fu and ninja fu, set and filmed in Northern California and starring a bunch of locals and genre actors. While it's a bad film by any standards, full of spit-take laugh-out-loud stupidity and nonsensical dialogue, it kept my interest up to the end, in large part thanks to a thrilling third act full of non-stop kung fu action.
First off, all the online sources I can find on this movie give it a date of 1982, but the closing credits clearly say 1980 so that's what I'm going with. IMDB be damned.
We open in a seedy dive bar where a scrawny crackwhore dances topless to a groovy jukebox. Right out of the box you are thinking that Weapons of Death is going to be one of those tacky exploitation flicks that is filled with nekkid chicks and gushing aortas, but in truth this is the only skin you see and there's almost zero blood. We meet here Carter, a down-on-his-luck former thug who is now content to be drunk 24 hours a day.
Carter, carrying Fred Williamson's jock.
Carter's former crime boss Bishop comes to the bar to find him and offer him a job. Bishop is a large, dirty, scruffy, Al Cliver sorta guy who dresses like a 1970s Hell's Angel and solves all his interpersonal relationship problems with bloodshed and broken bones. He will be our film's designated one-dimensional bad guy and is completely irredeemable in any way.
Bishop, he like necklaces.
Bishop is gathering a team to do one last job and Carter is the last of the criminals to sign up. They drive out to the rolling hills east of San Francisco to meet the Kingpin and his hundred Ninjas o'Death. The Kingpin apparently is some sort of Chinese Godfather in Frisco. Why does he hang out in the woods again? Couldn't he have this meet-and-greet just as easily at his fortified compound in the city? He does have a fortified compound, right?
The Kingpin on the right.
Bishop shows that he has a pistol and the Kingpin scoffs at him that in his world, "guns are not allowed". What sort of criminal/ninja outfit has a No Guns rule? Why are they so rare in kung fu movies? While it makes for lopsided (and short) action scenes if one side has firearms and the other side doesn't, and it's not really a kung fu movie if you use modern weaponry, it does strain credibility that a criminal gang in 1980s America would have such a prohibition against guns. A rival gang of armed Latinos could come up from LA and wipe them out in minutes and take over their operation.
Bishop pulls out his gun.
The Kingpin is paying Bishop to go kidnap the daughter of a rich old woman who won't pay him protection money. We must ask why the Kingpin has to subcontract this out, he clearly has enough of his own Ninjas to get the job done. This is why you have Ninjas, after all, you didn't take the time and effort to train and dress them and then just have them stand around, no? The anti-A-Team hop in a dented white Ford van and drive down to Chinatown in SanFran.
It's a proven fact that 87.46% of all Ford Econoline vans sold between 1968 and 1974 are, or were, owned by serial killers and cow rapists.
Their target is the house of an Old Woman whose family runs a Chinese martial arts school. She's apparently training her own killers, as most of the curriculum revolves around the use of swords and knives. I've never been to a karate school, but I suspect the ones here in Indiana tend to cater more to elementary school kids too flimsy to endure football practice and bored housewives looking for an alternative to pilates. If they are teaching kids how to gut an opponent with a two-edged battle sword here in Fort Wayne, I'd be highly surprised.
The Old Woman, apparently starring in her own Chinese version of Dynasty.
Her hot young daughter Angela is about 16 and maybe 85 pounds sopping wet, and while she's basically just a MacGuffin she does have a few short scenes where she gets to talk in her squeaky voice. The "actress" playing Angela was clearly bored to death with the whole process of "acting", however, and makes no bones about wanting to be down at the mall with her friends rather than sitting around waiting for the movie crew to set up shots.
Her two sons are Asian-Guy and Asian-Guy's-Brother. Asian-Guy is the head teacher at the school and a master of the dreaded and unstoppable double-sword fighting technique (in these types of movies each cast member has one and only one signature fighting style). He's the only one of the cast with legit martial arts skills, even if he's prone to striking stupid ninja poses and flexing his forearms like he's Bruce Lee. There can be only one Bruce Lee.
Asian-Guy is apparently a member of the Hanso Foundation's Dharma Initiative...
Asian-Guy's-Brother is a master of the bow and arrow, though he cheats a bit and uses a modern compound composite bow instead of a traditional Japanese lacquered bamboo bow. He has one of the most awesome hair and beard combos ever seen on film, which goes well with his love of plaid button-downs and tight brown corduroy jeans.
Angela is improbably dating White-Guy, one of the students at the karate school. At first this surprised me as White-Guy is an ugly, lanky, slightly paunchy, balding middle-aged man who can barely hold his arms above his head, let alone do kung fu. But then I realized that he's played by none other than the film's director and all became clear (hard to blame him, if I directed a movie that I was also in, I'd have the cutie on my arm, too). There's zero chemistry between these two, however, as the actress was clearly squeamish about having to hold hands with a guy older than her dad and critically afraid that her friends from high school would see her doing so.
White-Guy and Angela.
And lastly we have the backup token minority Black-Guy, a queasy, uncertain dude who is a master of spear fighting (proudly waving a long spear with a fuchsia plume on the end). Other than the sheer novelty of it, why would anyone who doesn't live in 14th Century feudal Japan ever bother to spend hours and hours a day mastering such an obscure fighting style with such a rare weapon? He can't really even land a job in Hollywood doing stunt work on period kung fu films as there weren't any African ninjas in pre-Imperial Japan that I know of (correct me if I'm wrong).
Ok, back to the action. Bishop's crew busts into the school and smacks them all down, even Asian-Guy is thumped and he's supposedly the best there is. It's odd that here the bad guys are able to fairly easily defeat our heroes when for the rest of the movie they prove to be nigh-invincible massacring machines. The lovely Angela is kidnapped and tossed in the back of the van as they speed away, and the rest of the movie will revolve around our heroes' attempts to get her back.
Bishop nabs the girl.
The Old Woman calls in her estranged ex-husband Curt (Angela's father) to help. Curt is a Caucasian with a bushy Bob Ross afro and a six-week caterpillar mustache who enjoys the feel of tight polyester slacks and open-necked silk shirts. He's one of a long line of American "action" stars whose actual martial arts skills leave much to be desired. If it wasn't for helpful editing cuts and the Vlade Divac-like flopping ability of frustrated stuntmen, you'd be hard pressed to think of him as anything more than a sorta-physically fit guy with some kinda-ability to swing a stick and kick his leg out. To be fair, Asian-Guy should be the hero of this movie but I'm sure the filmmaker figured he needed a white American guy as the lead if he was going to get any descent domestic distribution rights.
Both the Old Woman's sons hate Curt because he abandoned the family years ago. Asian-Guy might not be his biological son, however, as, honestly, neither he nor Angela appear to be mixed at all, and while the Old Woman and Angela speak English like fourth generation citizens, Asian-Guy clearly just got off the boat from Shanghai as his English is mud-thick with Mandarin. Anyway, Curt forms a heroic team of five warriors (him, Asian-Guy, Asian-Guy's-Brother, White-Guy, and Black-Guy) to go get Angela back if possible, and kick some ass along the way.
Happy little trees...
While the rest of them bring only edged weapons, White-Guy shows up with a .38 pistol and makes a (really) big deal about how he got it on short notice from a friend. Was it that hard for an American citizen to get a gun in 1980? They didn't even have federally mandated background checks or waiting periods back then (thanks, Hinckley!) and pawn shops didn't even have to have licenses to sell guns, almost anyone could get a gun cheap if they really wanted one, especially in a big city like San Francisco. The rest of the team look at him and his gun with some disdain, however, as if he's violating some sort of ancient Asian kung fu taboo by bringing along this vile Western devil-machine.
They might only have one gun, but they do jiggity ride in an awesome Ford Bronco.
Meanwhile, Bishop's van gets a flat tire and no one seems to know how to fix it (or maybe they don't have a spare, either way, Mister T is pissed they wrecked his van). Angela escapes when everyone just walks off and leaves her alone in the unlocked van. One random dude gives chase, taking Bishop's pistol with him, but Angela manages to kill him with a stolen sword and runs off with the gun. The rest of the thugs spread out to find her, aware that without Angela, the Kingpin won't pay up.
Angela stumbles into a group of bikers parked in the woods. These are the last holdovers from the Wild Bunch 1970s, with their leather chaps, bandana hats, Army fatigue jackets, CHiPs sunglasses and shoulder-length hair. They don't seem to be doing anything illegal, just standing around a campfire drinking beer and telling jokes, but smelling that bad has to be at least a misdemeanor. When Angela wanders in, they do restrain her, but don't attempt to rape her or anything (albeit they probably intend to).
The criminal Carter shows up, and after his requests for the peaceful return of Angela are met with spits and giggles, he proceeds to slaughter them all. The bikers literally fight to the last man, even when it's clear that they're all going to die, and that Carter just wants the girl, and even when they could escape on their bikes if they chose. Carter's fighting style is more like an insane coke fiend on a rampage than a trained assassin with precision kung fu skills, and it's welcome to watch a group-fight where you can really see the desperation of the moment showing through. When it's all over, we have to again note that the 14 dead bikers actually did nothing really wrong to deserve this slaughter, they only threatened Angela and seemed more drunk than violent until the killing started. I know the movie wants us to feel good that Carter killed all those shiftless skuzzy bikers, but would we feel the same if it were a group of Stanford frat boys at a campout kegger that got a little too handsy with Angela and then were massacred to the last man by Carter? Why does Hollywood hate bikers?
Carter and Angela have a heart-to-heart (though the actress playing Angela seems to be distracted/asleep). Carter wants to go good, to go straight, but is afraid of Bishop. The Kingpin is in the area and sends a group of a dozen Ninjas to find out what's taking them so long. They find Carter and Angela having their chat and there's some tense moments as Carter has to figure out on the fly how to extricate them from this sticky situation. In the end, after trying some negotiating, he falls back on what he knows best, slashing and stabbing and mauling. Once the Ninjas are all dead (who trained these guys?), Angela is sent off and Carter goes back to find Bishop. Angela is later recaptured, as she's lame and can't seem to keep hidden for more than two seconds.
Meanwhile, our heroes are out driving around the (suspiciously void of campers and hikers) highlands east of the Bay when they find Bishop's busted van. As they stand around discussing their options in light of this wrinkle, an 18-woman squad of the Kingpin's Girl-Ninjas leap out of covered pits in the ground (where they have apparently been lurking, waiting for the random chance that someone would drive by?). There's a huge fight as the Girl-Ninjas rush our heroes with flashing swords and swinging ponytails. They are, however, no match for the awesomeness that is our crew and everyone of them dies a messy death, except their leader, Red-Girl-Ninja, who is captured. This woman is dressed in a scarlet Chinese vest and is the only one with any semblance of karate skills.
Red-Girl-Ninja, whose amazing eyebrows have made her my newfound love.
Hay is made over Black-Guy being unable to kill anyone here, but it's much ado about nothing in the end as he will find his inner murderer by the last reel. Curt admonishes him, "It's the weapon that does the killing!" as somewhere a bunch of National Rifle Association lawyers suffer simultaneous heart attacks at this, as that goes against their established line that "guns don't kill people, people kill people."
Smacking down Black-Guy.
Now we have the Big Reveal, as Curt admits that Bishop is actually Angela's real father, as Bishop raped her mom sixteen years ago during a robbery. That's why Curt left them, he couldn't handle the situation, but he's all better now. An interesting twist, yes, but totally meaningless in the final wash, it's not like we needed more motivation to despise Bishop or to root for Curt and this sudden and forced softy side of Curt comes out of the blue with barely a wink.
Asian-Guy finds forgiveness in his heart.
Ok, Bishop and his crew take Angela to the Kingpin, but they have to wait for Curt to show up with the ransom money before they can do anything. They plan on them killing all after they get the money anyway. Curt and his team of heroes show up and the furball is on! The rest of movie is one long, bloody, frenetic running fight as a hundred-plus Ninjas chase our team through the wilderness. The Ninjas are presumably extras from a local SF karate school and they do a pretty good job following the script, which tells them to fall over and die at the slightest touch from one of our heroes. They all have matching swords (must have mail-ordered them in bulk) and wear loose Chinese shirts, better to hide the padded vests that keep them from getting hurt when the named cast actors smack them with their tinfoil-and-plywood swords. Hard to make an accurate count but I can confirm at least 78 dead Ninjas by film's end.
Get it on!
Asian-Guy's-Brother is like Legolas in polyester here, and while he only brought along maybe ten total arrows in a tiny quiver, they magically reproduce like rabbits between scenes. Black-Guy fights with his spear and for all the fuss made about his perceived lack of guts, he is a killing machine now. But then again, even if they were fighting with limp ramen noodles and cotton candy, they'd still win the fight because that's how these movies roll.
Asian-Guy confronts the Head-Ninja, who puts up stiffer resistance than the rest of the nameless Ninjas and even looks like he's going to fatally gore Asian-Guy before making a critical mistake and ending up quite dead. A nice variety of Oriental weapons are used in this one-on-one, including these cool clawed-brass knuckles borrowed from Enter the Dragon's prop locker.
Asian-Guy channels his inner Bruce.
White-Guy and Angela stick together and make for a path through the woods. I keep forgetting they're a couple, as she's a 16-year old hot Chinese girl and he's a 45-year old dumpy balding American guy, but kudos to him for at least sticking up for his girlfriend in a time of chaos (however, to be totally fair, all movie long he really hasn't been too upset that she was kidnapped by villains, though maybe he's just the stoic type). White-Guy still has his pistol and he burns through round after round, gunning down brave/stupid Ninjas who charge an armed man over open ground and predictably croak. Negative points, though, for White-Guy mostly shooting from the hip without aiming, which just burns my biscuits. White-Guy and Angela take care of Red-Girl-Ninja, also, though in the fight Angela gets separated from her beau for a time.
Meanwhile, back with the bad guys, Carter and Bishop fight over a difference in opinion, but really more over Carter's movie-long simmering resentment of Bishop for dragging him back into the crime business. Sadly, Carter is killed, which is a shame as he was a very sympathetic guy and maybe the only one who had any character development moments that didn't involve stabbing or maiming someone (though he did his fair share of that).
Then Bishop and Curt fight out their own differences with predictable results. The duel itself is rather anticlimactic, considering all the hype and drama over their beef with each other, and Bishop dies instantly when stabbed in the stomach. In most kung fu movies, the main bad guy tends to have a Terminator-style epic death scene, complete with gasping threats and clawing hands, but here Bishop just falls over kaput. I expected more.
Finally it's down to the Kingpin alone, all his Ninjas dead, holding a knife to poor Angela and threatening her with bodily harm. While he's distracted with his supervillain monologue, the archer Asian-Guy's-Brother thuds three arrows into his chest to wrap it up. It struck me as peculiar that the final blows to end the battle were delivered by Asian-Guy's-Brother, who up to this point has had maybe ten lines of dialogue and seemed to have disappeared for half the time. And seeing how the film's director was one of the characters (White-Guy), and Angela's boyfriend to boot, it also surprised me that he didn't let his ego take over at the end and have his last moment in the sun. Eh, oh well.
Arrow in the Kingpin.
Not for nothing, but by my inexact count, at movie's end there are 126 corpses in the hills of Marin County. Of these, 78 are young Chinese men and 19 young Chinese women (the rest of the dead are assorted bikers and bad guys). One wonders about the loss of so many young men and women from the traditionally ethnically tight-knit Chinese community in San Francisco. That's a lot of grieving mothers and angry fathers, abandoned siblings and children missing brothers and fathers, a great human cost to this endeavor that will never get even a passing mention. Anyway, I was going somewhere with this, but I've lost my train of thought. [Editor Pam: More practically, I wonder how the police are going to view this bloodbath. What are they going to do to Curt and Old Woman for not just calling them in the first place?]
Written in December 2009 by Nathan Decker and edited by Pam Burda.
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