TIGER CLAWS (1991) is the second movie with the Canadian dragon (I invented that name) Jalal Merhi. After filming BLACK PEARL, also known as FEARLESS TIGER, he brought along some of his cast and author J. Stephen Maunder, joined Shapiro-Glickenhaus and started Film One Productions, which produced 19 films between 1991 and 2015, almost all of them starring or directed by Merhi.
For this first film, they hired Canadian TV director Kelly Makin, who made her feature film debut. He would soon make himself bigger by directing filmed segments for The children in the hall, and later their movie BRAIN CANDY. I guess he’s the reason TIGER CLAWS has more wit and style than many comparable DTV action movies of the era (including the sequels to this movie).
Even more crucial was that Merhi was able to play alongside Cynthia Rothrock. She had already marked herself in Hong Kong with YES, MADAM! etc., and in the West with NO RETREAT NO SURRENDER 2, CHINA O’BRIEN I and II, the first BATTLE LAW and even FAST GETAWAY, so I hope he realized how lucky he was to share the lead with her.
Rothrock plays Linda Masterson, an over-qualified NYC officer introduced undercover in a wig that serves as bait for a sweaty pervert in flannel (real estate agent Nick Dibley). She has a partner (Fern Figueiredo) who follows her to be backed up, but the fool loses sight of her when he stops to whistle in a woman’s ass. No big deal – Linda easily kicks the shit out of the pervert as he tries to grab her in an alley, and then the partner shows up with the handcuffs. I like the look of the perpetrator’s face when he sees her walk away and take off her wig and finally understand that she’s an officer.
Merhi plays a deputy detective (and martial artist) that Linda does not yet know, named Tarek Richards. We see him in a much cooler undercover case where he meets with coke dealers and tries to arrest them on his own. But I guess he just did this on his own without permission, and his arrest goes south when the police in the case show up, everyone disperses and starts shooting. There is a good end to the melee as one of the dealers tries to drive away so Tarek shoots him, he crashes into a bunch of oil barrels, triggering a series of explosions. After the huge fireball has settled and the garbage has landed, the other officers run up, and a whimper: “It was my car!”
Let me give a few examples of instructors who make this one stand out. The opening scene features a street drummer (Jack Vorvis) whose beats become the perfect score for a pursuit sequence. (According to Merhi’s comment on the blu-ray vinegar syndrome, they found that guy during the filming and did it on the go.) Another great one is the sequence that starts ten minutes inside and sets the actual plot in motion. It follows Bill Pickells, “a famous martial artist and TV host”, who demonstrates his skill by blindfolding and chopping a watermelon in half with a sword – with the watermelon balanced on the naked midriff of a woman balanced between two chairs! When they have finished filming this routine, Bill yells at the crew for having shot the wrong side of his face and thrown someone taller than him.
Then it turns out that Bill has a phone call in his locker room. His show airs on TV, an episode about “the street’s self-defense to protect you out there in the jungle, because that’s exactly what the streets are, a jungle that’s a predator, and there’s a prey.” Suddenly an unseen, uh, predator comes in, Billy jerks up from the chair, and we hear him being killed off-screen, while his previously recorded self keeps moaning on the TV: “You have to trust yourself “You must know what you can do and be prepared to do it. Do not let these monkeys push you around. I will not let them push me around!” He still boasts of his black belts and championships over the airwaves after his body has been thrown back into the chair, dead with three blows across the cheek.
It’s such a funny character and scene that gets even more impressive when you look at the credits and find out that Bill Pickells is his real name! He had been in BLACK PEARL and would also be in TALONS OF THE EAGLE, TC 2000, THE FINAL GOAL and SAFETY ZONE. The celebrity who plays himself like an asshole has gotten a little worn out, but I like that there is one in the relatively small world of martial arts teachers in Ontario. (Merhi says the watermelon demonstration was real, that only Pickells’ real girlfriend would volunteer to be the woman, and that it was the TIGER CLAWS director and crew who filmed the show and got chewed out.)
Pickells is the second martial arts teacher to be killed this week, credited to a serial killer called “The Death Dealer.” This is a gimmick I love: the martial artist’s serial killer (see also: FEAR CITY, BLOODMOON, KUNG FU-KILLER). Clearly, Linda and Tarek (who is suspended so he can not carry a gun – I love it!) Are put on the case together. But first we get to experience a trope I always get a kick out of, which I think was also part of the MATCH RIGHT: the officer who thinks the whole idea of martial arts is silly. “Oh, get away,” Henderson (Mark Sharkey) says. “Martial arts is shit. I’ve been in enough scraps – I should know!”
“I disagree,” Linda says, before casually demonstrating a few hits on him.
One instructor touch that confused me a little, but which I respected when I found out what was going on, is when another martial arts teacher is killed by the Death Dealer while his body lies on the floor of his dark studio. Tarek comes over and kneels next to it, the lights turn on, and the camera pulls back to reveal various police officers and witnesses standing around. Oh, I get it – Tarek was not there during the murder, this is just a new scene transition in the camera. I respect that extra elbow fat.
Of course, the study is ridiculous, but in a fun way. They determine from the corpses that the killer is a master of Tiger Crane Kung Fu, or “Tiger” for short. They ask around Chinatown to try to find a Tiger champion off the radar, and end up in a big tournament (where there are a surprising number of Canadian flags and Toronto hockey equipment considering this is New York City in the US and certainly not elsewhere). Tarek catches sight of a tiger teacher he heard about named Chow (Mo Chow, EXPECT NO MERCY), and they follow him to an old cinema (Donlands Theater in Toronto; built in the 40s and showing Bollywood movies in the 70’s). close to where John Candy grew up, now a studio for television, music videos and commercials called Pie in the Sky.)
After one of Tarek’s friends is pronounced dead, he fights his way into the theater, insists he was trained by one of Chow’s friends and becomes a student. So he simultaneously tries to find out who the killer is and learn to fight him when he does. A funny part of the movie is that Chow seems scary, and there are all these leather jackets wearing tough students who are hostile to Tarek, but we, as people who watch this type of movie, know that the killer is obviously Chong, the bespectacled guy in civilian clothes quietly taking care of his own business and painting a mural on the spot. It’s already indicated that he probably is, but they do not have to tell us, because he is played by the damn Bolo Yeung! Of course he’s the killer!
After class one day, another student named Ming (Gary Wong) invites Tarek to take him and Chow to a secret Tiger Claw club – which turns out to mean a strip club called The Tiger’s Den. Wocka wocka. Of course, there’s a random robbery / gang shooting while they’re there, so Tarek hits a gunman with a table, starts fighting with the guy, and Chong helps too. I like that Tarek is not even very aware of this guy who is the killer he is looking for, but they are going to fight side by side. And Tarek’s point from the incident is that the training makes him too brutal, and he’s lucky that his new muralist friend Chong stopped him before he killed anyone.
In this film we are going to celebrate many wonderful b-action traditions: fighting with a bunch of thugs who randomly attack a guy in the alley, fighting with a bunch of brothers in a pool hall because one is trying to grope Linda, unorthodox training techniques (that put your hands in hot sand and boiling water, crushing apples with one hand), a giant shrine with tons of candles and murder trophies including weapons that end up being used in a Rothrock vs. Yeung duel. In another fight they have at the harbor (Tarek lives on a boat) Linda picks up an oar and spins it around like a stick.
But it’s Tarek
he- him who trained in Tiger Claw so he gets the climate duel. Chong briefly shows a macho sense of honor by tying his hands together for the fight, which I appreciate, but I do not understand why he immediately loosens it.
It’s disappointing that the plot is weighted more against Tarek than Linda, but at least she’s not helpless. Rothrock is going to have several fights that are the highlights of the film apart from the director choices I highlighted above.
There is an epilogue where Linda and Tarek have caught the killer and are together on Tarek’s boat for two weeks holiday. Linda is completely undressed, they have a champagne toast, and she says, “Come over here – tiger!” and kisses him. This is an unfortunate part of some of her films: not only does this novice with a fraction of her presence on screen (sorry, Mr. Merhi) get the unearned top spot, but then she has to fall in love with him in the end, completely out of it blue. No matter how much I miss the old movies, I’m glad that kind of thing does not really fly these days.
Still, the TIGER CLAWS is an enjoyable one, and although the entire trilogy has been one of the VHS-only holdovers since the ’90s, it was recently released in a set from Vinegar Syndrome with their usual pristine transfers, beautiful packaging, and extras ( including Rothrock interviews and Merhi commentary tracks). It’s in their limited edition Vinegar Syndrome Archive series to “celebrate forgotten cinematic quirks from the video store era,” so it’s only available directly from them, or bricks and mortar stores smart enough to get it from them.
signs of the times: I saw an extra wearing a Soundgarden “LOUDER THAN FUCK” t-shirt
I wonder about this poster seen to the left behind Linda at the police headquarters. First of all, does the captain have some kind of martial arts movie poster in his office? Second, maybe this was a movie-type poster looking for funding for an unmade Merhi movie? Looks like it could be him in the picture, but I can not find any existing movie like this one called BREAK FREE.
update: S in the comments below have pointed out that it should be an anti-smoking poster, with a cracked cigarette under the logo. Thank you, S!
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