TIGER CLAWS (1991) is the second film starring the Canadian Dragon (I made that name up) Jalal Merhi. After filming BLACK PEARL, a.k.a. FEARLESS TIGER, he brought along some of his cast and writer J. Stephen Maunder, hooked up with Shapiro-Glickenhaus, and kicked off Film One Productions, which produced 19 movies between 1991 and 2015, almost all of them starring or directed by Merhi.
For this first film, crucially, they hired Canadian TV director Kelly Makin, making his feature film debut. He would soon make a bigger mark directing filmed segments for The Kids in the Hall, and later their movie BRAIN CANDY. I’m guessing he’s the reason TIGER CLAWS has more wit and style than many comparable DTV action movies of the era (including this film’s sequels).
Even more crucially, Merhi was able to co-star with Cynthia Rothrock. She’d already made her mark 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 MARTIAL 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 overqualified NYC cop introduced undercover in a wig, acting as bait for a sweaty pervert in flannel (property master Nick Dibley). She has a partner (Fern Figueiredo) trailing her for backup, but the dipshit loses track of her when he stops to whistle at a woman’s ass. No big deal – Linda easily kicks the shit out of the pervert when he tries to grab her in an alley, and then the partner shows up with the handcuffs. I like the look on the perp’s face when he sees her walking away taking the wig off and finally gets it that she’s a cop.
Merhi plays a vice detective (and martial artist) Linda doesn’t know yet named Tarek Richards. We see him on a much cooler undercover case meeting with coke dealers and trying to arrest them single-handedly. But I guess he was just doing this on his own without permission, and his arrest goes south when the cops actually on the case show up, everybody scatters and starts shooting. There’s a great ending to the melee when one of the dealers is trying to drive away so Tarek shoots him, he crashes into a bunch of oil barrels, triggering a series of explosions. After the enormous fireball has subsided and the debris has landed, the other cops run up and one whines, “That was my car!”
Let me give a few examples of directorial touches that make this one excel. The opening scene features a street drummer (Jack Vorvis), whose beats become the perfect score to a pursuit sequence. (According to Merhi’s commentary on the Vinegar Syndrome blu-ray, they found that guy during shooting and did it on the fly.) Another great one is the sequence that starts ten minutes in and kicks the actual plot into gear. It follows Bill Pickells, “a renowned martial artist and TV host” who demonstrates his prowess by wearing a blindfold and chopping a watermelon in half with a sword – with the watermelon balanced on the bare midriff of a woman balanced between two chairs! When they’re done filming this routine Bill yells at the crew for shooting the wrong side of his face and casting someone taller than him.
Then it cuts to Bill having a phone conversation in his dressing room. His show is playing on the TV, an episode about “street self defense to protect you out there in the jungle, because that’s exactly what the streets are is a jungle, there’s a predator and there is a prey.” Suddenly an unseen, uh, predator comes in, yanks Billy out of his chair, and we hear him being beaten to death off screen as his previously recorded self keeps yammering on the TV: “You must have confidence in yourself. You must know what you can do and be prepared to do it. Don’t let these apes push you around. I don’t let ‘em push me around!” He’s still bragging about his black belts and championships over the airwaves after his body has been tossed back into the chair, dead with three slashes across his cheek.
It’s such a funny character and scene, made even more impressive when you see the credits and find out that Bill Pickells is his real name! He’d been in BLACK PEARL and would also be in TALONS OF THE EAGLE, TC 2000, THE FINAL GOAL and SAFETY ZONE. The celebrity playing themselves as an asshole thing has gotten kind of worn out, but I like that there’s one in the relatively small world of Ontario martial arts teachers. (Merhi says the watermelon demonstration was real, that only Pickells’ real girlfriend would volunteer to be the woman, and that it’s the TIGER CLAWS director and crew filming the show and getting 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 serial killer (see also: FEAR CITY, BLOODMOON, KUNG FU KILLER). Obviously Linda and Tarek (who is suspended, so he can’t carry a gun – I love it!) get put on the case together. But first we get to experience a trope I always get a kick out of, which I believe also featured in MARTIAL LAW: the cop that thinks the whole idea of martial arts is silly. “Oh come off it,” says Henderson (Mark Sharkey). “Martial arts is a buncha crap. I’ve been in enough scraps – I should know!”
“I disagree,” says Linda before casually demonstrating a few hits on him.
A directorial touch that confused me a little, but that I respected once I figured out what was going on, is when another martial arts teacher is killed by the Death Dealer, his body laying on the floor in his dark studio. Tarek comes over and kneels next to it, the lights come on, and the camera pulls back to reveal various police officers and witnesses standing around. Oh, I get it – Tarek wasn’t there during the murder, this is just a novel in-camera scene transition. I respect the extra elbow grease.
Of course the investigation is ridiculous, but in a fun way. They determine from the bodies that the killer is a master of Tiger Crane Kung Fu, or “Tiger” for short. They ask around in Chinatown to try to find an off-the-radar Tiger master, and wind up at a big tournament (where there’s a surprising number of Canadian flags and Toronto hockey gear considering this is New York City in the United States of America and definitely not somewhere else). Tarek spots a Tiger teacher he heard about named Chow (Mo Chow, EXPECT NO MERCY) and they follow him to an old movie theater (the Donlands Theatre in Toronto; built in the ’40s, showing Bollywood films in the ‘70s, near where John Candy grew up, now a studio for TV, music videos and commercials called Pie in the Sky.)
After one of Tarek’s friends is death dealed he fights his way into the theater, insists he was trained by one of Chow’s friends, and becomes a student. So he’s simultaneously trying to figure out who the killer is and learning how to fight him when he does. One fun part of the movie is that Chow seems scary and there are all these leather jacket wearing tough guy students who are hostile toward 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 minding his own business painting a mural in the place. I guess it’s already indicated that he probly is, but they don’t need to tell us, because he’s played by motherfuckin Bolo Yeung! Of course he’s the killer!
After class one day another student named Ming (Gary Wong) invites Tarek to go with 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 coincidental robbery/gang shootout while they’re there, so Tarek rams a gunman with a table, starts fighting the guy, and Chong helps too. I like that Tarek doesn’t even pay much attention to this guy who’s the killer he’s looking for but they get to fight side by side. And Tarek’s takeaway from the incident is that the training is making him too brutal and he’s lucky that his new muralist friend Chong stopped him before he killed someone.
In this movie we get to celebrate many wonderful b-action traditions: fighting a bunch of thugs randomly attacking a guy in alley, fighting a bunch of bros at a pool hall because one tries to grope Linda, unorthodox training techniques (putting hands into 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 docks (Tarek lives on a boat) Linda picks up an oar and spins it around as a staff.
But Tarek is
male the one who trained in Tiger Claw, so he gets the climactic duel. Chong briefly shows a macho sense of honor in tying his hands together for the fight, which I appreciate, but I don’t understand why he immediately unties it.
It’s disappointing that the plot is weighted more toward Tarek than Linda, but at least she doesn’t stand around helplessly. Rothrock gets to have numerous fights that are the highlights of the movie other than the directorial choices I highlighted above.
There’s an epilogue where Linda and Tarek have caught the killer and are together on Tarek’s boat for two weeks of vacation. Linda’s all dressed up, they have a champagne toast and she says, “Come over here – tiger!” and kisses him. This is an unfortunate part of some of her movies: not only does this newbie with a fraction of her screen presence (sorry, Mr. Merhi) get the unearned top slot, but then she has to be in love with him at the end, completely out of the blue. As much as I miss the old movies, I’m glad that kind of stuff doesn’t really fly these days.
Still, TIGER CLAWS is an enjoyable one, and though the whole trilogy has been one of those 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 for “celebrating forgotten cinematic oddities from the video store era,” so it’s only available directly from them or brick 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 police headquarters. First of all, does the captain have some kind of martial arts movie poster in his office? Second of all, was this maybe a film market looking-for-financing type poster for an unmade Merhi movie? It looks like it could be him in the picture, but I can’t find any existing movie like this called BREAK FREE.
update: S in the comments below has pointed out that it must be an anti-smoking poster, with a broken cigarette beneath the logo. Thank you, S!