Death Cage (1988)

deathcage

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Martial artist and actor Robin Shou got his first leading role in this low-budgeted martial arts action thriller that comes off a little campy, but fun nevertheless. Even more interesting is the casting of American martial arts legend Joe Lewis as the big bad villain.

Taking place in Thailand, a martial arts tournament is being held. Two rival schools are involved. They are the Wan Chai Gym, led by Master Tang Chuan and the Kent’s Gym, run by American martial artist Mr. Kent. The rival schools each have their best fighter compete in the finals. Representing the Wan Chai Gym is Lan Se-Han, while Kent’s Gym has Lai Tsai. As the competitors fight, Lan seems to have the upper hand. However, when Lai resorts to using dirty tactics, Lan and his master are both injured. As a result of their loss, Master Tang closes down his gym and seeks refuge in a car body shop with an old war friend.

Hoping to seek retribution, Lan begins to train hard and even gets a few pointers from Tang’s friend, who is a skilled expert in Tai Chi. Meanwhile, Kent learns of Lan’s training and sends out a mole in the form of prospective student Bikin to infiltrate. Bikin does this by dating Linda, Lan’s sister. While Master Tang and his friend do not trust Bikin, Linda simply doesn’t care. When a rematch is set between Lan and Lai Tsai, Bikin convinces Linda to give Lan a special medication before the match. During the match, Lan is drugged and is almost set on losing. However, through his training and perseverance, he is able to overcome the odds and beats Lai Tsai.

With the Wan Chai Gym now re-opened, Kent decides to play hardball. First, he sends various goons to break the spirit of the gym. When Master Tang’s friend is a casuality of two female henchmen, his friend’s daughter decides to seek revenge. Meanwhile, a match has been set between Lan and Bikin. However, the match will be set in a bamboo cage filled with spikes. Only in the newly built “Death Cage” will there be a winner.

This low budget martial arts action film from veteran Hong Kong stunt legend Robert Tai has a standardized script, from Brian Lucey. The film was made at a time where the tournament film genre was at a major high. However, the team of Tai and martial arts film actor turned action director Alexander Lo crafted some pretty nicely done kickboxing-style action that helps drive the film along. However, some prominent names were totally wasted and in one case, gives a performance that proves to be way over-the-top.

The film marked the first lead role for wushu expert Robin Shou. This is exactly the type of film Shou needed to make his lead debut. Shou has the looks of the action hero: good looks and martial arts skills. While in the film he resorts to a more kickboxing-style, in one training scene, Shou does get the chance to perform some wushu. Playing his mentor is 1970’s kung fu veteran Mark Long. However, Mark is totally wasted as he spends most of the film either in a wheelchair or carrying a crutch due to his character being crippled in an attack early in the film.

Perhaps the idea is to showcase the younger cast and leave the veterans on the back burner. Making quite an impression is another actor making his film debut and that is American-based martial arts actor Steve Tartalia. Tartalia, credited in some versions as Steve Tagg, plays Bikin, a sort of infiltrator for the unscrupulous businessman Kent, who uses Shou’s sister as bait to trap Shou and his cohorts. Tartalia looks like he is having fun with his role, spending the first half grimacing and later, showing some pretty impressive martial arts movies. While Shou doesn’t really take on Tartalia until the climactic fight, Shou does have a worthy opponent in Korean-based Hong Kong actor Tiger Kim Sang-Wook. Kim plays the insane fighter Lai, who looks like he awoke in the jungles of Tarzan, sporting wild hair and a loin cloth.

However, the big surprise or rather, the big surprise that is wasted comes in the form of a legend. American kickboxing legend Joe Lewis plays the evil Kent. Lewis is a fantastic martial artist, having hones his skills for decades. However, he doesn’t fight until the very end and even then, Lewis’ skills have come to waste and he isn’t really given a chance to show what he can do. He spends most of the fight scene throwing punches and saving all other moves for a Hong Kong stunt double. While Lewis shines in American productions such as Force Five and Jaguar Lives, Lewis’ moment in Hong Kong is truly wasted.

Shou would make his mark in America as the heroic Liu Kang in the live action adaptation of the video game Mortal Kombat in 1995. Because of the success of that film, some prints of the film have the title Mortal Combat 2. In other territories, the film was released as Bloodfight 2 as a sequel to Yasuaki Kurata’s 1989 tournament film. In any case, Death Cage only relies on its fight scenes, but only younger talent like Robin Shou and Steve Tartalia shine while legends Joe Lewis and Mark Long are sadly wasted.

WFG RATING: C+

A Golden Sun Films production. Director: Robert Tai. Producers: Lo Wei and Chen Wen-Sen. Writers: Robert Tai, Toby Russell, and Brian Lucey. Cinematography: Tony Kowalski. Editing: Tony Poon.

Cast: Robin Shou, Joe Lewis, Steve Tartalia, Mark Long, Angela Tsui, Kim Sang-Wook, Wayne Archer, Brian Lucey, Toby Russell, Simon Lin, John Ladaski, Master Sken, Nina Burt, Jojo Roe.

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