Boy is my face red! In CdC #5 I reviewed the porn classic Alice in Wonderland where I stated that I didn’t know of any other movies the star, Kristine De Bell, was in. It took letters from the Scaredy Cat Stalker, Krista Garcia, and our own foreign correspondent, Rich Osmond, to remind me that Ms. De Bell was also in The Big Brawl and ROOSTER: SPURS OF DEATH. Of course, my Video Hound Golden Movie Retriever had no mention of her in the description for The Big Brawl, so I had to go rent it and watch it again.
As I picked up the box at my local video store I got a song in my head that I whistled all the way home. I really wasn’t even aware that I was doing it until the I slipped the movie into my VCR and the title song started. Somehow, Lalo Schifrin’s overly catchy theme song is what stayed with me the most since I first saw this movie some three or more years ago.
Luckily, this wasn’t the only good thing about the film. When I saw it originally I was in the midst of a big Jackie Chan kick (no pun intended) so its lustre was pretty dull compared to the real home grown stuff. The Big Brawl is definitely nowhere as good as, say, Dragons Forever or even Fearless Hyena but it’s certainly not awful. It’s nowhere near as bad as it could have been (see The Protector for an extreme case), considering that it was one of a long list of movies made by the "creative" team of Robert Clouse and Fred Weintraub who, with some help from Oscar Williamson, have been responsible for some of my guiltier pleasures (Black Belt Jones, Truck Turner) along with some wretched cinematic refuse (Hot Potato, Game of Death).
This was definitely more of a hit than a miss as decent martial arts movies go and I don’t understand why it didn’t do a better job of putting Jackie in the hearts and minds of the American people. Was it his mix of humor and acrobatics that upset the more jaded "this is the part where he tastes his own blood, screams, and wails on the dude!" crowd? The humor was present but it was nowhere near the usual amount for Chan film. It wasn’t even cheesy and over-done like it might have been just to show American’s what a "goof" Jackie can be. It seemed to be just the right mix to please those familiar with Jackie and not be threatening to those whose palates were untouched by one of the world’s biggest superstars.
I will only type this next line and never speak it aloud for fear that my tongue might fall out: The Big Brawl wasn’t even directed too badly.
It wasn’t good, no siree, not by a long-shot. It wasn’t even competent. It just wasn’t as bad as it might have been. I'd really like to see this movie letter-boxed just to see if Clouse did a better job framing things than this full-frame version makes it appear. Luckily, it had some nice editing and a good steady pace to it. Sure, the script kind of glances over some huge items that needed to be dealt with and the movie just kind of ends, but you’ve got to remember that we’re dealing with Clouse and Weintraub in all their glory. I’m sure they had a big "We’re the ones that brought Bruce Lee to America" ego going into this picture so they didn’t worry about the little things, like story.
What small amount of story there is goes like this: primarily set in 1930’s gangland Chicago, Jackie plays Jerry, a grocer’s son who wants to learn kung-fu, despite his father’s wishes. He studies under his Uncle Herbert (Herbert?) who is a chiropractor by day and sifoo by night and quite well-played by Mako. Jerry has a run in with some mob guys who want to extort protection money from his father. After a lot of stuff happens (including a Rollerderby hosted by Larry Drake), the mob guys finally get it into their heads that Jerry might be a ringer for a tough-man contest going on in Battle Creek, Texas.
This is where it gets messy. Jerry goes out to San Francisco to pick up his brother’s Chinese bride who is kidnapped by the gangsters who force Jerry into agreeing to fight. So as to not arouse suspicion back in the windy city, Jerry takes back a gum-snapping prostitute who is a dead ringer for an Asian Nancy Allen. You would think this would have some real comedic possibilities, right? Or that there would be a big falling out between Jerry and his non-violent dad, right? Nope. Not at all. There’s not even a grimace-inducing denouement where the real bride takes over for the fake one. The movie just ends with a freeze frame and we never get to see wrong made right. We just have to kind of hope that the mob boss (Jose Ferrer w/an earring!) is good at keeping his word.
This brings up the question, is it better to be cliche or to have plot holes? This movie had its fair share of cliches but I was really surprised that they didn’t use the old kung-fu movie device of the wayward son getting back into his father’s good graces. Jerry’s dad seems way too happy to listen to radio reports of his son’s progress in the competition. Maybe if he would have been reluctant at first but eventually comes around to cheering on his son as he rises in the ranks of the fighters?
Nope. And once that fake bride is left with Jerry’s brother, that’s the last we hear from her. I think she might be there listening to the radio but that’s about it.
Instead of these simple-to-fix plot holes we get to see plenty of rodeo clown shenanigans back at the battle royale which is held in that now too-familiar Streetfighter/Quick & The Dead kind of way where the fighters are from all over the world and have match after match with one another. These are all kept to a good length and are pretty interesting.
Despite all these flaws that would only bother the most jaded of viewers (moi), I can’t imagine why this wasn’t a better foot-hold for Jackie to conquer the States. Even though Raymond Chow was a producer, Jackie was just a bit player in The Cannonball Run series so he couldn’t have expect much of them and I just can’t see him thinking that The Protector would do his career any good at all. I suppose he thought he had tried being a slap-stick martial artist in The Big Brawl so he might want to try a shot at a nerves-of-steel (and movie-of-shit) loose cannon cop.
Our beloved Kristine De Bell didn’t fair much better from The Big Brawl than Jackie. Her other film credits include Cheerleaders' Wild Weekend, Lifepod, TAG: The Assassination Game, and Willie & Phil. As this article is being written a search is currently being conducted by the Video Buyers Guide in an attempt to uncover any more adult films she might have starred in. I'll keep you posted on the results.