Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Death Is A Spectator Sport

The silliest movie about illegal underground swordfighting bouts ever made, 1994's RING OF STEEL was written by its star, Robert Chapin, whose blade skills kept him consistently employed as a stuntman, actor, and fight choreographer through the 1990s. His screenplay isn’t good, but it’s good enough. The film is never boring, and the unusual premise leads to some well-staged fights and stunts.

Alex Freyer (Chapin) and his hilarious mullet (Chapin’s mullet) are blackballed from fencing after he accidentally stabs an opponent in the eye and kills him during the National finals. It’s ridiculous to punish the guy over something that everyone agrees wasn’t his fault (the button snapped off his sword), but there he is anyway: a broken man, pouty, depressed, despite the encouragement of his girlfriend, pretty lady fencer Elena (Darlene Vogel, later a regular on USA's bicycle cop show PACIFIC BLUE). Redemption arrives in a colorful and mysterious Man in Black (top-billed Joe Don Baker of WALKING TALL), who invites Alex and Elena to his private club, Ring of Steel, where they are horrified by the illegal gladiator-style swordfights going on in the back room.

Well, not equally horrified. Seduced by the money, excitement, and sultry moll Tanya (SPORTS ILLUSTRATED hottie Carol Alt), he shows up at Battlin’ Baker’s tryout camp, but when he sees Ring champion Jack (Gary Kasper) humiliate and beat a fat nerd LARPer, he has second thoughts and splits. There’s no way out, though, because Baker kidnaps Elena and forces Alex to fight using his choice of ancient and presumably valuable antique weapons (I’m sorry, I mean “instruments of truth,” according to Joe Don).

As silly as it is, RING OF STEEL is an entertaining picture, the highlight of which is a fun and funny swashbuckling fight between friends Alex and Brian (Jim Pirri). Chapin and supermodel Alt are not good actors, but the appropriately hammy Baker, likable Pirri, and appealing Vogel make up for their shortcomings. The action is plentiful and handled very well by director Frost, fight coordinator Jan Bryant, and stunt coordinator Shane Dixon.

Co-executive producer James Glickenhaus directed SHAKEDOWN and THE EXTERMINATOR. Don Stark (THAT 70S SHOW) and Henry Brown plays cops investigating the fat LARPer’s death. Chapin went on to create, write, direct, and act in a web series called THE HUNTED.

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