Tuesday, May 27, 2014

FORCE: FIVE

After the worldwide success of ENTER THE DRAGON, that film's producer and director (Fred Weintraub and Robert Clouse, respectively) repeatedly tried to catch that lightning in a bottle again. Unfortunately, they no longer had Bruce Lee. So they kept attempting to find a martial arts star who could take his place. After trying and failing with both Jim Kelly (BLACK BELT JONES) and Jackie Chan (THE BIG BRAWL), they decided to showcase multiple stars in their next effort: 1981's FORCE: FIVE.

Long on my "most wanted" list, this early-80s New American Cinema actioner has recently come to DVD courtesy of Scorpion Releasing.

The plot is familiar: a millionaire recruits a team of martial arts experts to infiltrate the island stronghold of a charismatic religious leader, Reverend Rhee (played by legendary kung fu master Bong Soo Han, KILL THE GOLDEN GOOSE), and retrieve the millionaire's wayward daughter (Amanda Wyss,  A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET) from the clutches of his cult. The team arrives on the island posing as a part of a U.S. senator's entourage, and much martial arts mayhem ensues. Basically it's ENTER THE DRAGON again (and remarkably similar to the same year's South African actioner, KILL AND KILL AGAIN).

Handsome, blond world karate champion Joe Lewis (JAGUAR LIVES!) plays Jim Martin, leader of the titular quintet. Despite his good looks and karate cred, Lewis was neither particularly charismatic nor much of an actor, and despite a couple of other attempts, never became the film action star he wanted to be. Still, he adequately anchors the flick and executes his fight scenes with aplomb. It helps too that the filmmakers have backed him up with a handful of other genuine fighters, including Richard Norton (EQUALIZER 3000, RAGE AND HONOR), Benny "The Jet" Urquidez (DRAGONS FOREVER), and Sonny Barnes (GYMKATA). Unable to find a female fighter, the producers cast starlet Pam Huntington to portray the distaff member of the team - she couldn't fight worth a damn, but she was certainly pretty.

The script is rather predictable, and lifts its structure - as well as whole sequences - directly from ENTER THE DRAGON. But the fights are reasonably well-staged (at least by 1981 standards), the direction is relatively brisk, and there's even a bit of gratuitous nudity, all making for a perfectly satisfactory drive-in diversion.

The DVD from Scorpion Releasing is well above average for an older cult title, with a very commendable 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer from a new HD master. It's a shame they didn't choose to release this on Blu-ray, because the image is very nice, with good detail (even in standard-def), rock-steady colors, and virtually no print wear or damage evident. The mono sound is likewise solid. The only extras are the original theatrical trailer and a slew of trailers for other Scorpion titles.

FORCE: FIVE is, admittedly, a nostalgic favorite - I first saw it at a drive-in on a double bill with CIRCLE OF IRON, and then again, a few years later, on VHS - but it holds up remarkably well. It's derivative, dumb fun, and highly entertaining. Definitely recommended for fans of vintage action flicks.