Friday, May 30, 2014

Force: Five

Writer/director Robert Clouse and producer Fred Weintraub collaborated to make ENTER THE DRAGON, the first American martial arts film, more or less. They then spent the rest of their careers trying to recapture the magic of that global sensation.

Their most obvious attempt is FORCE: FIVE, which replaces Bruce Lee with the less charismatic karate champion Joe Lewis for a similar story of martial artists infiltrating an island stronghold to battle a madman. The plot is actually identical to that of KILL AND KILL AGAIN, which was also released in 1981. Making the parallel to ENTER THE DRAGON more obvious, however, is the casting of Korean martial artist Master Bong Soo Han as the colorful villain, the same part he portrayed so memorably in KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE's parody of ENTER THE DRAGON.

Lewis’ career as a leading man effectively began with the disappointing JAGUAR LIVES and ended with FORCE: FIVE. He was fine in the action scenes, but limp as an actor, lacking even the charisma of a Chuck Norris or a James Ryan. Lewis heads the ensemble as Jim Martin, an international mercenary who’s indirectly hired by a U.S. senator to rescue his daughter Cindy (Amanda Wyss, later big in ‘80s teen comedies like FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH and BETTER OFF DEAD), who has joined the religious cult of Reverend Rhee (Han).

Rhee’s base is a holy temple, where only those robe-wearing disciples who are deemed ready to move up to the next rung on the spiritual ladder are invited to visit. In actuality, none are ever seen again, as Rhee has them sign over to him all their worldly possessions—including trust funds—before leading them into his basement labyrinth where they’re gored by a vicious bull!

Putting together a crack team of five specialists, including gorgeous kung fu kicker Laurie (Pam Huntington, then the “Charlie” girl in TV commercials), Billy Ortega (professional fighter Benny “The Jet” Urquidez), Lockjaw (Sonny Barnes), and Australian Ezekiel (Norton), Jim infiltrates Rhee’s private island sanctuary, where he discovers the allegedly peaceful minister’s drug smuggling operation.

Clearly, there’s a lot of silliness in Clouse’s film, but it’s a lot of fun and features plenty of cracklin’ chopsocky action. Actual martial arts stars like Lewis, Norton, and Urquidez may not be the world’s greatest thespians, but Clouse uses them wisely, and if you aren’t annoyed by the many blatant similarities to ENTER THE DRAGON (including a hand-to-hand climax in a smoke-filled basement that’s ripped from ENTER’s famous mirrored room sequence), you should find FORCE: FIVE to be a dandy time.

American Cinema, which produced and distributed the Chuck Norris vehicles A FORCE OF ONE and THE OCTAGON, did the same with FORCE: FIVE. Stephen J. Cannell and Frank Lupo, creators of THE A-TEAM, must have seen it. Not only was their hit show about a group of mercenaries that traveled to fight evil, but one of them was a wacky helicopter pilot whom the team often had to break out of jail, just as Martin’s team does with wacky chopper pilot Willard (Ron Hayden).

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