The video store up the road from me is divesting itself of its long held racks of VHS films. Normally this is not a good way to begin a review, but this event has the power to shape the Hall of Shame for months, if not years, to come. Why? Well, see, all of the films anyone in their right mind might want to see are already long gone. That leaves about ten shelves filled with awesomely bad movies like, for example, Stickfighter, for people like me to buy for the princely sum of fifty cents. That's right, five dimes, ten nickels, half a dollar bill with the serial numbers intact, is all it takes to bring home your very own copy of Stickfighter.
Well, except that one isn't there anymore — It's mine now.
You may not know this but The Philippines has had an active film industry for decades, and I don't mean just as a staging area for American Vietnam flicks like Platoon or Apocalypse Now, I mean the real deal with their own film studios and distribution networks. Cirio H. Santiago, often producing and directing under the name Luis Nepomuceno, began his career in the 1970s and he produced and directed loads of films in any number of genre. He is probably best known for his work in the Blaxploitation cinema of the 1970s, and later as a director in partnership with Roger Corman who released dozens of Vietnam War films into the unsuspecting video stores of North America. Ever seen one? Yeah, me neither —
Anyway, let's talk Stickfighter. You pretty much can't make a martial arts picture without focusing on one or two principal martial arts to help drive the story. Not only that, these types of films also act as a sort of P.R. piece for the art in question, Above the Law? All about Aikido. The Perfect Weapon? Parker Kenpo all the way. Kickboxer? Muay Thuy. You get the idea right? A few rare films will mix a whole shitload of martial arts types into a single film, like Bloodsport or The Quest or The Big Brawl. But, those films didn't develop until later in the evolution of action cinema, well, at least not in the west. The Chinese have been pitting one style of Kung Fu against some other style of Kung Fu since the first chop-socky picture was shot in Hong Kong by the Shaw Brothers. So, Stickfighter, which is ostensibly a martial arts film about Arnis/Eskrima vs Kenjutsu is one of the earlier examples that isn't Chinese.
Arnis/Eskrima for those not familiar with the art, is a classical Philippine fighting style where the practitioner wields two yard-long sticks and beats the ever-lovin' shit out of you with them. I don't know what the difference between Arnis and Eskrima other than Arnis is a generic term applied to all Philippine martial arts, and Eskrima is what you'll do when someone hits you with two sticks.
Anyway, this film showcases Eskrima in all its stickfighting glory via the talents of Roland Dantes, one time Mr. Philippines the bodybuilder, and also emissary of Arnis. He plays Ben, the insanely muscled son of Allan (Gilbert Roland), a local Spanish landowner who will go to stickfighting war with The Governor (Alesandro Rey), and his sons Miguel (Dean Stockwell), and Antonio (Cole Mallard).
Yes, Dean Stockwell, AKA Al from Quantum Leap, plays the heavy in a Filipino martial arts movie.
Stickfighter takes place in the 1500s, as evidenced by the references to Queen Isabella of Spain. This sets the events of Stickfighter right at the very beginning of Spain's influence on this South Pacific island chain. Now, don't get all huffy thinking "but it's a martial arts movie… Why do I need to now all this history stuff?" You don't, but it'll help knowing just a little bit when we discuss the personalities and motivations of the villains. Also, knowing the time period where the film is meant to take place makes poking fun at the inaccurate costumes of the Spaniards that much funnier.
We begin with confusion as a hulk-like Filipino, beaten and bruised, in chains by a group of Spanish soldiers. Cut back to what I am guessing is a few days ago where Ben, he's the muscle-bound guy we just saw in chains, is doing farm work at home with his dad Allan when both Miguel and Antonio show up to collect taxes. Allan, himself a Spaniard, tells the agents of the crown to go screw. Reacting to this snub, Antonio grabs Allan's wifes blouse and rips it off. In the International Language of Martial Arts Movies, this signals the beginning hostilities.
A note about the costumes here. I know for our collective memory it's relatively easy to see "1500s" and imagine "1800s" but you can't do that in film. When Miguel and Antonio appear they are dressed in the height of Mexican Landowner Finery in that their ruffled blouses and piped pants appear to have come from the Zoro wardrobe box at Disney. These clothes are, literally, 300 years ahead of their time.
They even manage to wear 18th century naval captain's hats too. And their swords are not the cleaving cutlasses of the conquistadors, but fencing foils, swords that literally, wouldn't be possible without a couple hundred more years of steel making evolution.
Allan and Ben don't fare much better either. Allan wears a similar uniform to the others, minus the coat and tails, while Ben wears bright red clam-diggers and a white tee shirt.
What the hell? Did a sears catalog from 1970 fall through a time warp and land in the center of Manila? And why are all the clothes made, apparently, of polyester?
We will revisit this wardrobe of confusion often, so don't think I'm done yet.
Okay, back to the movie — What Miguel and Antonio, apparently, don't know is that both Allan and Ben are avid Eskrima stick fighters. They learn though, after a thorough beating.
And, for all the shit I'll talk about this movie, and I'll talk plenty, the martial arts sequences are actually above par, even when compared to much better overall films. The showcasing of Eskrima is very well done, but this is a double edged sword. The reason the fight scenes are so good is because Santiago uses a single stationary camera and keeps both fighters in the dead center of the screen. Sure, there are plenty of edits to break up the action, and that makes the fight scenes flow well, but he uses the exact same technique for every other type of scene in the film. The effect is as if we are watching the movie through a window and it makes the boring scenes, of which there are more than plenty, even more boring.
Okay, back to the plot, what little there is so far — Miguel and Antonio run off bruised and angry. Ben says he thinks his dad is the greatest stick fighter of them all. But Allan explains that there is someone even better who, if Ben could find him, would unlock all the secrets of Eskrima. Allan gives Ben half of a necklace, the other half supposedly strung around the neck of this mysterious Eskrima master.
Cut back, briefly, to Ben's trial where he's shackled and chained and the governor is about to pass judgement.
Wait, what the hell is going on here?
One of the things anyone watching Stickfighter will notice is that the editing is atrocious. Santiago abandons the brain-scrambling flash backs/forwards after the first fifteen minutes or so, but not the techniques that support it. So, as if checking off a list of things to have in the movie, even if only for a half second, he cuts to and fro around the main action to give us reaction shots from bowls of fruit, stunned looks on extras faces during dialogue scenes that aren't shocking, hula dances, stock footage of ships, and all manner of cinematic detritus to make Stickfighter even harder to watch.
Okay, Ben gets sentences to death, but we don't linger on that. Instead we're shoved back to Ben and Allan's house. I am guessing it's "later that night" but Miguel and Antonio return with a whole shitload of soldiers, and The Governor (Alesandro Rey) himself. Ben is quickly subdued but Allan and The Governor have a long drawn out stick-vs-rapier right. Allan is killed, stabbed in the chest and later in the back. The Governor then takes his revenge on Allan's wife and begins, in what is easily the longest uninterrupted scene in the film, to rape her. Allan's wife, not enjoying the rape at all, cuts off the Governor's wang and burns his face.
No, really! She cuts off his doodle! It's like, the most disturbing of the revenge scenes in I Spit On Your Grave, only worse, because Santiago lacks the subtlety and we get to see Spanish cut-off-penis-paella flopping around as blood gushes all over the kitchen.
In a penis-less fury, The Governor stabs the shit out of Allan's wife.
Ben watches all of this in horror (Miguel and Antonio laugh) from outside the house.
The thing with this whole scene is, I had to rewind and watch the whole goddamn offensive mess again once The Governor actually spoke later in the film. Why? Well, I think the guy playing The Governor in this first scene is a completely different guy than Alessandro Rey. And after careful reviewing, I am prepared to judge that it is indeed a different guy, probably Rey's stunt man, with a terrible fake beard glued to his face.
Okay, glad I got that out of my system.
Back to the trial, well, the exact same footage of the trial we saw earlier only this time Ben is told he will be sentenced to death. Which, in this movie, means being forced to serve on a Spanish ship.
Yep, so for the Spanish in the Philippines, death means, being a deckhand. Got it. We get to see some stock footage of a galleon sloshing about on the waves then the crew running to and fro trying to keep the boat from sinking in the storm. Of course, the Captain wants to kill Ben and has him tied to the mast. A mutiny breaks out during the storm and while everyone battled the boat starts to sink. Ben, using the awesome power of Eskrima, manages to get his hands on a stick, kill a shitload of people, then leap overboard.
We assume the rest of the crew is drowned.
Ben washes up on shore surrounded by a gaggle of fantastically beautiful women in floral print saris (Sears and Roebuck, Page 345, Women's Beach Fashions. Multiple colors and patterns available. $5.99 each plus shipping). The leader of these women is Leni, played by none other than Nancy Kwan.
For those who haven't seen Flower Drum Song, probably her most famous role, or The World of Suzi Wong, you're missing out. She's also made dozens of other film and TV appearances and is a way better actress than this material warrants. And Leni's role is such that anyone, hell, even a palm tree, could be used to fill in the screen time. It's a shame too because Nancy Kwan is awesome and having a resource like that on hand and not using it is just baffling.
But then, this is a stick fighting movie.
So Ben washes up on shore and awakens to a gaggle of lovelies. Great! He doesn't know which island this is, and considering the vast amount of unexplored (at least by Spain) islands in and around The Philippines in the 1500s, it could very well be uncharted.
Of course, everyone speaks the same language as Ben, in the case of this movie, English.
Leni and the girls lead Ben back to their Gilligan's Island-esque village, you know, constructed out of bamboo, palm fronds, and straw. But the ladies aren't the only residents, remember this is the South Pacific not the Mediterranean so Ben hasn't stumbled onto the isle of Lesbos. No, there's plenty of men too, all dressed in variations of Bermuda shorts and tee shirts (Sears and Roebuck's catalog page 563, Men's Wear Casual. $4.99 plus shipping).
Ben fits in immediately and seems to be getting along just fine with both the men and the ladies when he meets the blind hermit who runs this island like a beaded cult leader (really now, is there any other kind?). The Old Man, as he is known, is played by legendary actor Guy Madison who achieved fame in the 1950's playing Wild Bill Hickok first on the radio then on television.
The Old Man explains that Spain has no claim to the island, though there are some who believe a vast pirate treasure is buried somewhere in the beach sand, but it's only a legend.
Cut to The Governor's mansion where The Governor is lamenting the loss of his penis. However, to cheer him up, Miguel and Antonio have procured the services of a samurai, Mori (Hiroshi Tanaka). Mori has also brought a gift of "fast swords" with him.
Whatever the hell Fast Swords means. I know what Samurai swords are and how they are made (it's the geek in me) but of all the adjectives to describe a sword, fast just isn't one I'd use.
To demonstrate his skill with the blade he engages in a one-on-one swordfight with Antonio, and for a while it appears that Antonio has the upper hand but he can't manage to land a strike on Mori. Finally The Governor calls an end to the match, and, as if by the magic of loose threads, all of Antonio's clothes fall off. This was meant to demonstrate that Mori had indeed won the match and could have, at any time, sliced Antonio like a stick of Wunderbar bologna.
The Governor is also pissed that the galleon went down. He doesn't care whether or not Ben died, but the ship was carrying money destined for Spain that would further boost his cache with Queen Isabella. Now he'll have to collect taxes for another shipment, and deal with all the annoying questions from The Court as to where the ship went, and why they haven't looked for it, etc. Miguel thinks he can find out what the last position of the galleon was and offers to take another ship to look for it.
The Governor agrees as long as Miguel takes Antonio with him. That night The Governor has a woman brought in for his pleasure, but since he's only half a man, gives her over to Mori while he apparently squats on some candles.
I dunno… that's what it looked like to me.
Cut back to the island where Ben is practicing his Eskrima in a short demonstration match against a guy with a pair of Nunchuks. While the match grinds on, some stock footage of a Spanish Galleon sneaks up on them.
Cut to possibly the worst ever fake Spanish Galleon every constructed for a movie, ever, sitting about 30 feet from the shoreline. Miguel, Mori, and Antonio are at the rail as the crew readies their guns.
They fire a volley into Mr. Howell's hut and blow it up.
The tournament abruptly ends and everyone runs to the beach. By now Miguel and Antonio and Mori are rowing ashore. They demand to see whoever is in charge. Ben manages to keep himself out of the spotlight some but staying in the rear of the crowd. The Old Man says that the island is off limits to the Spaniards and that they've found no treasure and saw no sinking ship. Miguel demands all the women of the island be brought aboard the galleon that night.
This interval gives Ben and The Old Man time to plan.
The women board the galleon and begin their hula dance (no really… it's a hula dance) and fraternize with the crew. Meanwhile, Ben leads a group of island men over to steal all of the cannons from the galleon.
The girls get tired of being groped and produce mysterious Eskrima sticks from their costumes and beat the shit out of the crew then leap overboard and escape. Realizing that the guns have been stolen and pointed back at the galleon, Miguel threatens the islanders that he'll return with the full might of Spain at his command and kill them all.
Ben, The Old Man, Leni, and the others celebrate as the galleon retreats.
Ben tries to explain why he hid when the Spanish were on the island, but is interrupted by The Old Man. The two fight briefly but Ben can't land even a single stick on The Old Man.
The Old Man pulls Ben's necklace off and demands to know where it came from. Ben explains (he does a lot of explaining) that his father, Allan, gave it to him and said the man who wore the other half was the greatest Eskrima fighter in the world.
The Old Man then joins Ben's necklace with the necklace he wears.
Like we didn't see that coming?
The Old Man agrees to train Ben in the art of Eskrima and teach him all the secret knowledge he'll need to defeat Miguel and avenge the murder of his parents. This will require two years of training! Cue training montage music!
We assume two years pass as Ben runs up and down mountainsides, stands in freezing rivers, gets beaten mercilessly by The Old Man with sticks, and spends a year, yes a year, with his eyes blindfolded by a piece of freshly sliced goat flesh.
Sometime during this training montage, The Old Man reveals that he isn't really blind, or maybe he is, he says he is, but also says he can see. This must've been meant to increase the mystery of The Old Man's character. Instead though, it just makes him even more annoying.
Cut to Miguel and Antonio on the exact same galleon set we saw before in the exact same place in the harbor as it was before.
The islanders have their guns trained on them, but this time the Spaniards stay outside their range. The captain of the galleon mentions that the only way the islanders can hope to hit the ship is by triple-loading the cannons, and that they can't stand such a charge.
Miguel, Antonio, Mori, and the captain offer hearty "Muahahahahah!" laughter as the islanders continue firing only to splash the water about twenty yards from the ship.
The islanders triple load one of the cannons and fire it, but the explosion destroys the gun.
More "Muahahahahhaahahahahahah!" from the rail of the galleon. They fire back which causes the stock footage from the last cannon attack to appear again, i.e. a hut explodes.
The islanders all run off towards the beach as Miguel, Antonio, and Mori row ashore with a gang of Spanish sailors. This time Miguel recognizes Ben among the islanders and challenges him to a duel, but he'll have to fight Mori.
The Old Man tries to diffuse the situation by offering a gold cup from the legendary treasure of the island to Miguel.
Miguel is impressed with the offer and in true villain fashion decides that after he kills Ben the men will ransack the island until they find the treasure. But this plan fails and the two fight. Ben and his sticks are severely overmatched by Mori and his samurai sword (big surprise there). The problem is Ben's sticks are made of wood and Mori's sword isn't.
The Old Man hurries in and apparently cuts off Ben's wing-wang (Ben is face down) and shows it to Miguel. "See, you're avenged." He then says Ben will only live a few hours and could they please leave the island now? Miguel says he's leaving now, but he'll be back with even more ships and they won't rest until the Island is relieved of all its treasure. This time Miguel says he'll be back in three weeks and the islanders better have the treasure ready for delivery or it's curtains, "curtains I tells ya!:"
As the Spaniards retreat to the ship set, Leni presses The Old Man as to why he cut off Ben's willy. The Old Man says he faked it with a chicken neck and that Ben will recover.
Ben does recover, albeit slowly, and The Old Man takes he and Leni to the hidden treasure cave wherein, like the Pirates of the Caribbean Ride, are heaps of gold chalices, coins, and other riches. The Old Man has more than gold though, and pulls a fist sized diamond from the pile. With this, he says, Ben can make himself a royal emissary, a veritable count of Monte Cristo, if you will.
Remember, Ben's real name is Roland Dantes, which, is very similar to the name of the main character in The Count of Monte Cristo, Edmund Dantes, so you should have known this angle would get worked in here.
It's even funnier to think they put this teeny-tiny plot so late into the movie too, based on the name of the actor rather than anything really necessary to the story. Imagine, if you will, that the lead was really named Roland Plumberivecometofixthesink, that would suggest that the plot would have to pay homage to the Sesame Street cartoon about The Plumber, who's come to fix the sink.
Anyway, Ben and the old man take the Jewel to the only Chinese merchant on the island. We know he's Chinese because he looks like a coolie, with a coolie hat and everything. He agrees to get the diamond to Queen Isabella and establish Ben as a noble with claim to the un-claimed islands that The Governor is so hot to get his hands on. This will serve two purposes, it will protect The Old Man, Leni, and the other islanders from Dean Stockwell and his Galleon set built in the harbor, and it will give Ben a way to get close to The Governor without arousing suspicion. The Chinese merchant thinks he can get this done before Miguel returns with his fleet.
Before we can go any further though, and because this movie is insane, the Chinese Merchant's son arrives, he's all of 8 years old, and demonstrates his nunchuck form for The Old Man and Ben.
What film has a budget so large they can waste film on a scene like this? It's not that the kid isn't good, he's okay, but the nunchucks are obviously foam, and… having a History Channel minute here… not even remotely related to either China or The Philippines.
Common belief is that the Nunchaku came to Okinawa via China, probably used to beat grain or soybeans, and that it became a weapon only when edged weapons were banned for a time. Another belief is that Bruce Lee invented the things for Game of Death and countless appearances in film and popular culture followed.
Either way, not Filipino or Chinese.
We now return you to your regularly scheduled bad movie already in progress.
I dunno… Spain is a long way from the Philippines by boat… But put your suspension of disbelief away for a while (trust me… what am I saying? I mean, if you still have it, this far into the movie, you need to see a professional, fast.).
With his mission to get Ben established as a lord, The Old Man dies of old age. Before he dies though, he tells Ben that there is one last lesson to make him master of Eskrima and give him the tools he needs to effectively fight off Mori and his massive samurai blade.
Gasp! Gack! Poop!
The Old Man shuffles off the mortal coil.
Cut to Ben on the side of a very active volcano. He's trying desperately to get a sapling out of the ground before sheets of hot lava bury him. This scene is funny because the hot lava, for the purposes of this movie, is played by hunks of burning paper and wood thrown, from off screen by stagehands. Making it even funnier, is that they keep hurling these wads of flaming death at Ben whenever he gets within ten feet of the sapling. Ben finally gets to the little tree but can't cut it down as the heat of the volcano has made the wood as hard and strong as steel. Giving evidence for this is the profound "ringing" noise the trunk makes whenever Ben tries to hack it down with a machete.
After running away from a few more wads of burning stuff, he rips the sapling from the ground and flees the angry volcano. Ben modifies this tree into his iron-hard Eskrima sticks of death.
Cut to The Governor's home where Miguel, Antonio, The Governor, and Mori are fretting over the news that Queen Isabella has granted sovereignty to some unknown Caliph. Worse, this new guy will be dropping in for dinner.
Enter Ben, now dressed like an understudy for the Elijah Kalgan School for Children with Special Needs winter 1970 production of The Arabian Nights. He hands over his paperwork from the Queen which both names him as owner of the outlying islands, and a loyal ally of the Spanish Throne.
The Governor asks if the Caliph has an heir after introducing his sons.
The Caliph admits he hasn't found the right woman yet.
The Governor, Miguel, Antonio, and Mori offer polite yet subdued "Muahahahahahahas!" Then insist that The Caliph be their guest at dinner. He can have one of the rooms in the castle put aside for royalty.
Ben is led away to his room.
The Governor tears up the information from Queen Isabella. The Caliph certainly has put his plans for island domination in the shitter, but there may yet be a way out. Since he has no heir, if he were to accidentally have his head cut off by Mori, then The Governor could claim he received no such visitor, and the claim that The Caliph has to the islands will be moot. It's not like Queen Isabella is going to show up in Manila and demand to see the guy. Besides, all The Caliph did was get a big-ass diamond to her. For all anyone knows he might be a common boob who stumbled on some pirate treasure.
Cut to Ben's room where he's shaving off his hastily grown Fu Manchu beard and mustache while Miguel peppers him with questions about what his plans are for the island. The Caliph then turns and reveals himself as Ben.
Miguel and Antonio are stunned (because they are morons) and attack. Ben puts a nice hard thwap onto Antonio's head and kills him. Miguel runs off with Ben in pursuit.
But, this is all part of The Governor's plan to lure Ben away from the castle where he can be killed without arousing the guards. Miguel leads Ben into a torch-lit circle where Mori is waiting.
The samurai battles with Ben for a while, but can't make any headway against his awesome iron sticks of stick-smacking. Miguel goes down first, thwapped across the head then stabbed. Mori goes next, killed with his own sword, and finally The Governor.
Ben walks off into the sunrise a free man.
End movie. Everybody Eskrima for joy!