In the world of American martial arts films during the early 1990′s, an Israeli filmmaker made his feature film debut with this action film about a former kickboxing champion who becomes a policeman who gets involved in a major drug trade. The filmmaker is known as one of the biggest names in today’s martial arts films in America. His name is Isaac Florentine.
Joe Highhawk, a Navajo-born kickboxer, punishes his opponent in the ring only to be knocked down and spit on. In a rage, Joe takes out his opponent and ultimately kills him. After realizing what he has done, Joe retires from kickboxing and returns to his home in the desert, where he serves as the top lawman of the area.
When brother and sister Anthony and Claudia learn of Claudia’s boss’ true dealings as the biggest drug lord in the area Santos, they flee with the bad guys chasing after them. The goons make the big mistake of entering Joe’s turf and when they confront Joe, the lawman unleashes his kickboxing skills. He ends up protecting the siblings but gets into a heap of trouble when he learns that Santos’ right-hand man, Bruno Zaki, is a former kickboxing champion whose dirty tactics got him thrown out of the same league as Joe.
When Santos and his men finally kidnap the trio, they take Claudia, kill Anthony, and leave Joe for dead. However, when Joe remembers a story that Anthony told him about the Navajo finding water under the deepest of deserts, Joe finds out that the myth is true and decides that he must not only use his skills in martial arts, but the traditional ways of his tribe in an effort to stop Santos and his men once and for all.
After gaining acclaim for his 1987 short action film SHALOM LA-MECHASSEL (aka FAREWELL: TERMINATOR) is Israel, Hollywood mogul Menahem Golan, the man behind Cannon Films, gave Isaac Florentine his first feature film under his 21st Century label. Florentine, who is a black belt in Shorin-Ryu Karate, showed some of the work that would make him one of the undisputed kings of action cinema with U.S. Seals 2, Special Forces, and Undisputed II and III to name a few.
Cast in the titular role of the ‘Desert Kickboxer’ is John Haymes Newton, who gained fame only a few years prior by playing the titular hero of Superboy in the television series during the series’ first season. Newton, who began his martial arts training in 1985, plays the role of Joe Highhawk very well. As both a kickboxer and a Navajo, Newton actually shows some decent martial arts skills and in a way, it is a shame that this would be his only martial arts film in his career. He definitely shows the potential to be a martial arts action star after this role.
The villain of Santos is played by Paul L. Smith, perhaps best known to general film fans as Bluto in the 1980 live action version of Popeye. However, martial arts fans will best remember him as the lead villain in Return of the Tiger, a 1970′s Hong Kong film that starred Angela Mao and Ho Chung-Tao (aka Bruce Li). Smith doesn’t really get to use martial arts here. In fact, he is seen more like the comic book version of Daredevil’s nemesis The Kingpin. When it comes to fighting, he lets the more agile Michael M. Foley do the martial arts fighting, especially in the climatic fight against Newton. Foley is a talented martial artist who would star in another B-movie the following year, The Divine Enforcer, in the titular role of a priest who uses martial arts to take out crime in Los Angeles.
The only flaw from the entire film is there were a few flaws in the camera angles during the final fight scene between Foley and Newton. There were just a few times when you can see Foley clearly miss but Newton stills acts like he is hit. However, do not think of this as discrediting Florentine. As this was his first feature film, there is that tendency to have rookie mistakes now and again. Yet with his current track record, it is safe to say that he did a really good job overall in terms of the fights and why not? Florentine also served as the fight choreographer for this film, with assistance from co-star Foley.
Although the film was originally titled as Desert Hawk upon completion in 1990, 21st Century decided to re-title the film after capitalizing possibly on Kickboxer and American Kickboxer (released by Golan’s Cannon Films in 1989 and 1991) upon its home video release in 1992.
Nevertheless, Desert Kickboxer is definitely for martial arts film fans, especially those who love Isaac Florentine’s current films. This would be a very good look at how he began his career as one of the top directors in American martial arts films.
WFG RATING: B-
A 21st Century Film Production. Director: Isaac Florentine. Producer: William G. Dunn, Jr. Writers: Isaac Florentine and Jim Lofti. Cinematography: David Namir. Editing: Karen Horn.
Cast: John Haymes Newton, Judie Aronson, Sam DeFrancisco, Michael M. Foley, Paul L. Smith, Luis Contreras, Frankie Avina, Biff Manard, Mark Richardson.