If FISTS OF STEEL were just a little better or a little worse, it would stand as a trash-film classic. It has a lot of hilarious crazy stuff in it, including the most amazing ending in the history of American cinema.
Unfortunately, under the unsteady hand of producer/writer/director Jerry Schafer (LIKE IT IS), it lumbers through some of the worst-edited scenes I’ve ever seen. When someone drives away, Schafer shows them tipping the valet, getting in the car, starting it, and driving it all the way down the driveway. One scene’s only reason for existence is for two characters to agree to meet in a half hour, yet Schafer then cuts to their later meeting. Why the need for the earlier scene? The strangest editing choice is the disappearance of one of the main villains, who is sent to Managua to assassinate a character we’ve never seen and has no bearing on the plot.
The star is Carlos Palomino, the former WBC Welterweight Champion of the World who must have shot this not long after his ten-round loss to Roberto Duran sent him into retirement. Not a total acting amateur after guest spots on TV shows like HILL STREET BLUES and KNIGHT RIDER (where he played himself), Palomino stars as Carlos Diaz, a Vietnam vet with steel joints where his knuckles used to be (hence the title, which is literally true in this case). Schafer does less with this gimmick than you might expect, since the guys Carlos hits still manage to continue fighting a lot longer than I would after running into a fist of steel.
One of his ‘Nam buddies, George Breenberg (Sam Melville, a former star of THE ROOKIES), is now with the CIA and recruits Carlos for a dangerous mission in Hawaii. The target is a Middle Eastern assassin named Shogi, who is first seen dressed in a baseball uniform and smashing someone’s head with a wooden bat. Next, he dresses as a surgeon and uses a syringe to drop acid into a guy’s eyeball. Shogi is assisted by “beautiful Katrina” (Marianne Marks), who is supposed to be Russian, but looks Latina and speaks with a cartoony Natasha Fatale accent. She really enjoys killing, seems to get off on it (a crossbow bolt to the face is her specialty), and she’s the one who is mysteriously banished to Nicaragua. So I guess Katrina is still alive out there and available for use in the sequel.
Shogi is played by the great Henry Silva, one of the screen’s greatest villains in films like SHARKY’S MACHINE, THE ITALIAN CONNECTION, and BRONX WARRIORS 2. Nobody in movies curses like Henry Silva, and as usual, he’s by far the most entertaining aspect of FISTS OF STEEL. He’s also the key to the amazing ending, which will blindside you with the same baseball bat Henry used on the guy at the beginning of the movie (though to be fair, Schafer does sort of foreshadow that something stupid this way comes).
Shogi’s murders to begin the movie are government agents, which is why Breenberg needs Carlos, a total amateur, to go undercover and get Shogi. Schafer’s plot makes no sense, as Shogi’s goons (which include BLACK SAMSON’s Rockne Tarkington and Robert Tessier) try to kill him almost as soon as Carlos hits Oahu. Meanwhile, he’s killing them back, and the whole plan would have been a lot easier if one side just walked up to the other and pulled a trigger. Less entertaining for us, but much easier for them.
Also working for Shogi is a nightclub singer alternately called Girl and Julie. I’ll just come right out and tell you that she’s played by Kenny Kerr, a man in drag (given special Introducing honors in the opening titles). This is hardly a spoiler, as it’s obvious from Kerr’s first appearance that she isn’t what she appears to be, which leaves you wondering whether or not we’re supposed to know what we know and whether the people in the movie are supposed to know. Well, no and no—it comes as a big surprise to Carlos when she finally whips off her wig and bra to lay some heavy kung fu moves on him, and Schafer stages it as a big reveal.
I hope I’ve made FISTS OF STEEL sound ridiculous (there’s even a Bond-villain scene where Silva orders the assassination of a traitor during a lavish dinner attended by lovely prostitutes), because it is. Oh, also Melville dresses in blackface as a hotel maid for no good reason I noticed. Nothing I’ve mentioned will prepare you for Schafer’s ending, which…just…ah, hell, you just gotta see it. I clapped when I saw it.