While in recent times the habit has reached a level that would (should) probably be cause for concern, back in the early-2000s my tendency to be a night owl was a bit more manageable, less regulated by what was on the DVR (since DVRs barely existed at the time and we didn’t have one yet besides) and driven more by what local channels burnt off in the wee hours. Don’t get me wrong, I was staying up late no matter what (particularly during the summer months), but if a new-to-me movie was running somewhere, it could very well determine whether I went to bed late or I went to bed uber-late.
Today, with a seemingly-endless stream of infomercials and/or cookie-cutter sitcom repeats, local stations seem a lot more homogenized, much more “by the numbers” to me (though the rise of the digital subchannels has been a figurative lifesaver and major contributor to my current state of night owlery). Granted, this was an issue even back in the early-2000s, but around here, even at that late date channels could still occasionally display a bout of quirkiness – something that seems utterly inconceivable nowadays. I remember WEWS channel 5 running old black & white flicks, East Side Kids and obscure 1950s dramas and stuff like that late late at night around that time on weekends (I’m pretty sure), and trust me, for a ‘big’ channel that was pretty outside the status quo at the time.
Leo Gorcey was all well and good, but you know what I really wound up enjoying during those late night sojourns? Action flicks. Some of them were ‘big’ action flicks (Big Chuck & Lil’ John ran First Blood once!), while others were more second-tier fare (Big Chuck & Lil’ John ran Iron Eagle II once!), but it didn’t really matter how ‘esteemed’ a movie technically was; I found myself becoming hooked on the genre, and watching each film for its own merits. The thrill of ‘discovering’ a new-to-me action film was enough in and of itself. The fact I was up late, all alone and watching in the dark only added to the, I guess, immersive thrill of it all. Or something like that.
Channel 5 (I think it was) would occasionally run some of the relatively-obscure stuff from the 1990s; that’s how I discovered the Brian Bosworth epic One Man’s Justice, which I loved (MC Hammer was in it, too). But, at the time, the place to go for low budget, oftentimes direct-to-video fare was WBNX TV-55. These kinds of movies, along with syndicated shows such as Viper and The Lost World, were easily found on the station for years. And, as I explained back in August, when they moved horror host The Ghoul to Sunday nights/Monday mornings and largely altered the movies featured, he became a repository for just such action movies. (And unlike many of the films foisted upon him in that era, the action flicks actually did work on the program – provided The Ghoul was allowed plenty of host segments to litter the commercial breaks, anyway.)
It was all but impossible to stay up and watch The Ghoul during the school year, those Sunday night/Monday morning shows were on a week night after all, but things obviously opened up during the summer months, and in mid-August 2001, it was his show that introduced me to our subject today: 1995’s Don “The Dragon” Wilson’s action opus Ring Of Fire III: Lion Strike. The movie stuck with me (it probably held a lower rank in my eyes than One Man’s Justice did at the time, though that has since flipped considerably), and thanks to the magic of this newfangled digital video technology (that’s DVD to you), it’s available for all to enjoy!
Here’s the DVD itself. Well, the cover, anyway. The disc doesn’t present much in the way of extra features; no bonus kickboxing tips by Wilson, no commentaries, no trailers, no wacky behind-the-scenes bloopers. Nope, all you get is the movie – full screen and in revolutionary stereo – and scene selection. You want more than that? Well ain’t you highfalutin! I really like that tagline, at any rate.
As you may surmise through the power of deductive reasonin’, Ring of Fire III is the third in a series of movies. I have not seen the first two entries. Madacy released these films individually and together as a box set, but they’re all seemingly long out of print. Indeed, the first two films seem to have gotten less distribution over the years than the third entry has overall; even on eBay, old VHS copies of one and two are somewhat scarce whilst the third is readily found. Indeed, as of this writing III is the only one still easily available on DVD, courtesy of Echo Bridge Entertainment and their 2005 release, and it’s that very release we’re looking at today, right now as we speak.
If you ignore that whole third designation in the title, it works just fine as a standalone feature. I’ve only read synopsis’ of the first two movies, but I didn’t need to do even that; Ring of Fire III gets by on its own. (Actually, while I’m going by what I’ve grown up knowing it as, never mind what’s on the DVD cover, the actual on-screen title for this particular release is simply Lion Strike, which only helps matters honestly). It’s not high art, nor was it intended to be, but as a low budget action thriller – hailing from the mid-1990s direct-to-video era no less – it’s a lot of fun.
World kickboxing maestro Don “The Dragon” Wilson plays Dr. Johnny Wu, an everlastingly kind, gentle physician. In addition to that, he also has a young son (played by Wilson’s actual son Jonathan), who is motherless; Wu is a widower, his wife having been killed by a drunk driver prior to the start of our film today. (She evidently figured into the first two films, which, as previously stated, I ain’t even seen.)
Oh, and Wu also happens to be a first-class kickboxer, because Don “The Dragon” Wilson. This is demonstrated aptly by, apropos of nothing, an opening sequence featuring the attempted escape of a mafia figure from the hospital in which Wu works. Wu of course puts the hurt on all perpetrators involved all by himself. This open has nothing to do with the rest of the film, except to let you, the viewer at home, know that Wu can deliver a serious beat down. This is further demonstrated by him later pummeling an entire group of uppity bikers single handed, including one who suddenly bursts through the hospital doors and down the hallway riding his motorcycle, which again, doesn’t have much to do with the story proper other than let us know Wu is a force to be reckoned with when pushed.
Look, was the big boulder that chased Indiana Jones ever referenced again after the start of Raiders of the Lost Ark? No? So why can’t you afford Don “The Dragon” Wilson the same consideration you give Harrison Ford? (Unless that big boulder was referenced again; I haven’t seen Raiders in full in a long, long time. Just go with me here, okay?)
Because constant pummelin’ has to wear on even the most hardy of heroes, Wu is offered the use of a cabin in the mountains by one of his colleagues, which he accepts. Spend some quality time with his son, catch some fish, not have to beat the daylights out of people, it seems like a well-earned vacation for Johnny Wu.
Except things don’t go as planned. We wouldn’t have much of a movie if they did! Through a series of circumstances, Wu finds himself smack dab in the middle of a nefarious plot: organized crime has gone global, with figures of an international variety (including famous character actor Robert Costanzo’s villain at the head of it all) conspiring together to sell nuclear materials from the former Soviet Union to the highest bidder. Plans detailing this dastardly scheme are housed on a floppy disk, which is fortuitously stolen from the bad guys by other, otherwise-unrelated bad guys – much to the chagrin of the original bad guys. Through a plot point worthy of The Brady Bunch, it eventually finds itself in the hands of Wu, which of course only further draws ire of the global mafia. Ah, the days when the fate of the world could hinge on a 3.5 floppy!
Eventually Wu finds himself and his son chased by legions of baddies, but he’s not alone; park ranger Kelly (Bobbie Phillips) is along for the ride. And guess what? She’s no slouch with the punchin’ and kickin’ and shootin’ either! (Wu joins her in beating the stuffing out of an entire group of poachers early in their acquaintance, and naturally the germ of a romance is planted, too.)
As I said before, Ring of Fire III isn’t high art, but again, it wasn’t intended to be. It apparently went straight-to-video back in 1995, and the easy-to-follow plot, relatively low budget, and mounds and mounds of fisticuffs totally point to this being a weekend renter back in the days of the video store. And given that criteria, it’s perfect. No joke, Ring of Fire III is a lot of fun!
Of course, it’s not a perfect movie. Some of the dialog is eye-glazing (You’ll hear the question “Where’s the disk?!” asked approximately 900,000 times over the course of the film), and there are a few moments that don’t quite make sense (when Wu and Kelly fight the poachers, a cowboy rides up and watches them intently, and it keeps cutting between the fight and the cowboy as if he was of some importance to the situation, but when it’s all over, he simply rides off and is never seen again. Say what?)
Furthermore, the acting is…well, it is what it is, okay? WIlson wasn’t hired to win awards in that area, (when he’s caught kissing Kelly by his son, he makes a face better suited to dodging a thrown pie, and later when it appears the baddies have killed said son, his reaction comes off somewhat less aggrieved than you might expect), but he projects a boyish, almost innocent charm…which is pretty funny considering the amount of pain he’s capable of doling out.
Which leads me to this: there’s no moral ambiguity in Ring of Fire III; the good guys are good, and the bad guys are really bad. There are no torn feelings on the part of the viewer; there are no antiheroes. Wu and Kelly are so utterly nice, and the bad guys so utterly ruthless, that you can’t help but root for the forces of good.
Despite the presence of a little kid, the overarching “good always triumphs over evil” theme, and some violent bad guys who are also presented in a loud, stereotypical, scenery-chewing manner that often comes off pretty funny (I assume intentionally), Ring of Fire III ain’t exactly for the children. As you may expect, it’s pretty violent, with lots and lots of punching, kicking, and shooting. The bad guys aren’t adverse to killing innocent people to get what they want (except when sparing them advances the plot, of course).
And there’s lotsa ‘splosions too. Helicopters blowing up, cabins blowing up, cars blowing up, cars flying through the air and then blowing up. Ring of Fire III may not tax your mental capabilities with complex character studies, but it’s certainly never boring!
Funny enough, compared to the action movies of today, or even just prime time television, it’s actually a somewhat tame movie. There’s a little bit of gore but it’s not particularly graphic in that regard. There’s no sex, no nudity, and except for some unsavory language, I really don’t think anything was edited at all when I first caught this on The Ghoul so many years ago. Indeed, bleep the salty talk and this could easily run on prime time network TV today. (Hey NBC, how about bringing back the movie of the week…with Ring of Fire III as the inaugural revival feature? Please?)
In the end, this is a pretty meat-and-potatoes action flick. The plot is simple, the kickboxing is plentiful, you know who to root for, you know who to root against, and it’s often even a little funny. They really don’t make ’em like this anymore, but then, I’m not sure they were still making ’em like this even when I first saw it in 2001. It’s a real artifact of not only the mid-1990s video store era but also a (seemingly) bygone era in late night television broadcasting, when stuff like this could actually show up on the schedule; hard to imagine nowadays. And yet, even though it’s a throwback, it’s one that still holds up – maybe I’m just easily pleased, but no joke, I’m continuously entertained by this one. It’s a breezy 90 minutes, it won’t tax the synapses, and it features Don “The Dragon” Wilson as a kickboxing physician. Sounds like a fun night at the movies to me!
(And yes, I totally stayed up late just last night and watched this; just felt right that way. )