Does the box look familiar? This is by Shout Factory, makers of the Naughty Nurses Compilation which I previously reviewed here. While obviously thematically different from that collection, I consider these as something of a sequel if not companion piece to the earlier set, though perhaps only symbolically. While the naked caregiver characters from the previous product each gave a lucky patient physical therapy using certain healing techniques that Medicare would never cover, the Kung-fu kittens in these films each have a tendency to seduce a certain man and then later murder him for reasons that are in most cases pretty justified. Yet when viewed together, they form a kind of “circle of life” dynamic of sorts where male stock antagonists are first depicted being passionately healed by a skilled female caregiver in white as other men are later senselessly and violently offed by evil ninja women wearing black who are trained in martial arts and assassination techniques. Yet aside from being an unintentional study of the woman’s two most popular sexploitation roles as either “mindless pleasure receptacle” or “murdering psycho bitch” all of these Roger Corman’s Cult Classics are so filled with wacky half naked female characters who are selflessly dedicated to their careers (of saving lives or ending them) that they seem to be oblivious to their own exposed breasts throughout most of the film. This being said, I will devote no further deep study to them other than the usual maddening eyestrain evident to most of the films I seem to review. Let us check out these “lethal ladies” for ourselves and see if they are as cold blooded as the box art suggests, or merely “barely lethal”.
The plot of FIRECRACKER is the biggest storyline cliché in all martial arts movies that it barely bears explaining. Someone makes the mistake of murdering the relative of a martial arts champion which angers them enough to go visit a foreign country to explore the exact nature of their siblings’ death and to open a wheel kick can of whoopass on all those held responsible. Needless to say this time around the protagonist is a female Karate champion named Susanne Carter, a pretty blonde who fights off hordes of attacking men and yet simply cannot seem to kick above her belt line and cannot seem to so much as somersault or perform the more grueling fight scenes without the use of obvious stuntwoman or edited camera work. Of course this film isn’t meant for martial arts purists, it is meant primarily who like symbolic (but not actual) rape fantasy scenes contrived from action sequences of weapons play and action gone horribly wrong. Throughout the film, young pretty Susanne finds a myriad of ways to shed her clothes as she fights and kicks, like the time she loses her dress on a barbed wire fence, later getting her top sliced away by a near miss down the center of her cleavage by a blade wielding attacker. Still another time she actually has a love scene with her karate thug boyfriend Chuck Donner, where they take turns slicing off each other’s clothes with a knife. Not since Heavy Metal Magazine have I seen such a slickly contrived, adolescent rape theme forged into an unlikely, almost condescending depiction of R rated fantasy violence and action. Even if the actress who plays the comely Karate Champion (Jillian Kesner) is obviously no actual martial artist and all the onscreen Karate champ action is just a convenient plot device to crudely mix sex and violence in a visual blender that gives neither the respect it deserves, I have to admit it did have something of a plot if not character arc. It turns out that the man who murdered her sister turns out to be someone she became much acquainted with on her stay in the Philippines. In a peculiar movie such as this where even knives become mere sex toys for consenting lovers to undress each other, the mere fact that Susanne enters a Karate tournament just to fight her former lover to the death, may not make sense but isn’t exactly displeasing either. This ending, while admittedly not truly satisfying, offered a bigger sense of fulfillment than I had come to expect so far from a film such as this where the main female protagonist can only interact with the evil male characters who pursue her by successfully kicking them to death or having sex with them after she gets (literally) gets the pants beat off of her. FIRECRACKER is a peculiar combo of both “chop socky” and sexploitation which will annoy diehard fans of either genre who are simply too hardcore for this mixed martial art mess of mammary meat which truly neither pleases nor punishes.
TNT Jackson (1974)
TNT JACKSON plays out exactly like FIRECRACKER. So many elements are common between the two. The Kick-a-licious femme fatale, the drug dealing subplot in a foreign land (This time Hong Kong), the lovers turned deadly enemies and the fact they were both directed by Cirio H Santiago. The main difference of course, obvious to anyone with eyes and a box scan is the fact that TNT Jackson is actually an African American woman which makes this a work of Blaxploitation. So how does this White/Black photonegative copy of a karate film play out compared to the former (though later) movie? For one thing the fight scenes are much more graphic here, though no more realistic. TNT has the remarkable ability to hit so fast that it seems a few of the frames are removed from the fight scenes just to accent her kicks and punches as they connect. Moreover, it is all but obvious that the action has been sped up at times to 2x speed just to show quick this sista’ can hit. What ultimately is the most gripping however was the graphic fight scene where TNT can apparently break a man’s arms or punch a liver out of a man’s ribcage. With video game violence visuals, themes of betrayal by her lover and the swank 70’s afro-tastic sensibility that ruled the day when this was filmed, this is a soulful kung fu film for those of you thought that Dolemite was a work of B-movie art. Aside from these extreme production values, it is obvious that TNT JACKSON herself (or rather actress Jeannie Bell) is no real martial artist as there is one scene where she is actually played by a white stuntwoman. Still, I know that my obsessing over this laughable film flub will make me seem like an obsessive compulsive, impotent film geek who knows nothing why these films were ever made to begin with. So let me just say now that there are lots more spur of the moment excuses for TNT (Miss Jackson if you’re nasty) to simultaneously fight scores of male attackers while being completely topless. Whether this the ultimate all-time depiction of female empowerment in 70’s ‘sploitation or just a way to prove that there was at least some on- screen situations where our heroine didn’t need a body (stunt) double is up to your own interpretation. Much as in the previous fist, foot and fight fantasy we have a woman who searches for some answers regarding her family member’s death yet along the way finds herself falling in love with a bad man who was responsible for her brother’s death. Together they form unlikely love that lasts a lifetime…because she fights the poor guy in a death match during in the final scene. How very fickle is the touch of woman, indeed!
Too Hot To Handle (1977)
And finally we have a change of pace, TOO HOT TOO HANDLE takes us back to the Philippines where we follow the exploits of a hit woman named Samantha Fox (No, not THAT Samantha Fox though she is indeed a naughty girl who “apparently” needs love too). Yet somehow, Ms. Fox has a heart of gold and only kills people who really deserve it, especially a list of five evil crime kingpins. Complicating matters, Samantha soon falls in lust with the detective investigating the murders, a man named Domingo. What follows is a zany, nudie often goofy romance between the two career foes now turned private lovers with just enough blood and breasts so you don’t mistake it for a an old episode of Hart to Hart. Samantha Fox herself (Cheri Caffero) really knows how to put the “killer ass” in “killer assassin” as she spends half of the movie lounging naked on her boat talking on the phone and the other half using her feminine wiles to close in on one of her targets so she can murder them slowly; methodically using bizarre, seduction based tactics that only a “Cute Blonde” rather than a “James Bond” would ever think of. From poisoning a man by drugging his hot tub, to rigging an S+M situation with the wrong kind of “choking game” all the way down to apparently seducing a woman her and then rigging her cosmetic mask to electrocute her, Samantha at least keeps us distracted enough not to notice or care how Macgiverish and needlessly ponderous her murder techniques are. Still, Cheri is no bimbo even though she has the physique of a showgirl and who uses seduction as a deadly weapon indeed throughout the bulk of this thing. There is one unforgettable scene where Cheri is enjoying a cockfight with her arch rival cop lover and we get to see a vision of her innermost thoughts (An R rated strip tease; masturbation fantasy) while she watches actual bloodless (but graphic) scenes from an actual cockfight. While I don’t particularly like portrayals of actual violence against animals in movies whatsoever, nor do I feel that is necessary anymore with today’s digital effects, this scene is vague and yet bizarre enough to where you really realize this is some high octane film from another day that they couldn’t make anymore, in these days of sensibilities and animal rights. While scenes of cruelty, shock value and unrated exposition do not by themselves EVER make a good film, It is my feeling that in order to be watchable decades later, EVERY old ‘spoitation movie has to at least have at least one fucked up moment of sensory wrong that you will never be able to again see get in a modern, big budget Hollywood movie to avoid being forgotten forever and this “cock fighting” scene was artfully shot enough to where you wished, yearned; cried out in hope that the whole movie would suddenly elevate to that level of cinematography, symbolism and three dimensional character development even if had to come at the expense of good taste. It never did, of course (as it seldom does) but it reminded me a lot of BASIC INSTINCT and despite its usual sins of simplicity, TOO HOT TO HANDLE is at least twice as much fun of a movie as BASIC INSTINCT 2 ever was. There isn’t much hand to hand fighting in this one but only because Samantha Fox liked getting closer to her victims than punching distance. You figure out the ending for this one yourself (If you haven’t already just now).
This concludes the Lethal Ladies box set from Roger Corman’s Cult Classic collection. While it was better than the nurses set, there is one less film in this one so I had to take that into account (as should you). If you like 70’s exploitation, or plotless, topless movies from a forgotten age, or if you have always thought that was the only things missing from a Shaw Brothers movie were breasts and love affairs where every tiff or quibble ended in an a fight to the death, this is your four skull set. For all other audiences, I give this a three, but only because I felt that TOO HOT TO HANDLE was my kind of goofy. If only they would have put as much effort in developing the part of the female killer as undressing her extremely developed killer female parts. That truly would have been “too hot to handle” indeed, but, as it stands, it is still best of the set and worth a skull all its own.
Special Features include Theatrical trailers and Audio Commentary during TOO HOT TO HANDLE by none other than Cheri Caffero herself.