Judge William Lee is a kung fool for women with swords.
Our review of Too Hot To Handle, published September 3rd, 2004, is also available.
Three times the action, three times the women, three times the excitement!
Shout! Factory dusts off some more B-grade schlock from the 1970s and '80s with the triple feature release Roger Corman's Cult Classics: Lethal Ladies Collection. The two-disc set features three movies made for Corman's distribution company New World Pictures. What they have in common is the theme of butt-kicking women out for revenge in the Orient.
On the first disc are Firecracker (1981) and T.N.T. Jackson (1974), both of them standard examples of the generic martial arts cheapie. Cirio H. Santiago, who had a long production partnership with Corman and became a big name in the Philippines film industry, directed both. These two films are similar enough that it's like watching two variations on the same basic premise. (Shout! Factory also released the pairing of Corman-Santiago duplicate efforts Up From The Depths / Demon Of Paradise.)
A lone American woman arrives in Hong Kong looking for answers on the disappearance of her sister/brother. She quickly makes friends with the locals running a bar/night club. She catches the attention of the local drug runners headed by a rich white guy (Ken Metcalfe, who also co-wrote both scripts) and she gets cozy with his second-in-command. In the course of her quest for justice, she meets undercover cops, exacerbates some in fighting among the gangsters, and has several martial arts fights with henchmen—in one of those fights she will be topless.
Firecracker and T.N.T. Jackson are both serviceable but ultimately mediocre action flicks. The storylines are simple and the fight choreography feels very stagy and safe. In the former, Jillian Kesner—a champion at the Martial Arts Olympics, according to the trailer—is an energetic action performer and she comes across quite believably with her fighting skills. However, her dramatic scenes are a little flat. Jeanne Bell (Mean Streets), the titular heroine of the second film on the disc, brings enough attitude to go head-to-head with the treacherous Charlie (Stan Shaw, Snake Eyes) but TNT's fighting ability is enhanced by sped-up film and a stunt double. Santiago's direction seems satisfied that everyone can merely recite their lines so the acting overall is underwhelming. As the cool henchman, Stan Shaw contributes some enjoyable blaxploitation villainy to the mix inT.N.T. Jackson. There are creative touches like a foreplay scene involving knives in Firecracker that keep the slower sections interesting too.
Everything improves a notch with Too Hot to Handle (1977), directed by Don Schain (co-producer of High School Musical 3), presented on the second disc of this set. We're still in the realm of exploitation cinema but this story of a female assassin should be the headliner of this set. More attention to the script, a sense of humor, enjoyable music and a strong lead actress make this a worthy rediscovery on DVD.
Samantha Fox (Cheri Caffaro, Ginger) is killing off the big players in the Philippines underworld. She uses seduction and disguise to get close to her targets and then escapes without a trace. Domingo (Aharon Ipalé, The Mummy Returns) is the detective working to solve this series of contract murders. When he suspects the rich socialite living on a yacht might be connected to the crimes, he's conflicted whether to bring her in or to marry her.
The fight scenes in Too Hot to Handle don't convince us that Caffaro is a hand-to-hand combat expert but she has the acting chops to make up for it. As a confident, charming and sexy killer, her interaction with her prey is much more important and she pulls off those scenes with her co-stars very well. How she calmly plays with the men she's targeted and then coolly dispatches them makes Samantha a much more interesting character than should be expected for this genre. Ipalé is a worthy foil and love interest for Samantha. His English dialogue can sound like a mouthful through his thick accent, but he comes through and manages to look entirely comfortable in his character. The film also goes in some adventurous directions in editing, which adds a psychological layer to the characters and makes the film more surprising than the typical cheap action flick.
Elijah Drenner (director of American Grindhouse) conducts an interview with Cheri Caffaro for this DVD's commentary track. He isn't shy about his appreciation for Caffaro and for Too Hot to Handle. Caffaro's comments on the context of these exploitation films remind us that they appealed to female viewers too in an era when women couldn't get their own credit cards without a man co-signing for it. She talks about the beginnings and big points in her career including her producing experience on H.O.T.S. However, she doesn't say anything about her short marriage to director Don Schain, with whom she made many movies. Perhaps a little too much time is given to her current project, which is bee keeping. Turns out, Caffaro kept a lot of her memorabilia from her short career as a B-movie star and some of those promotional items are pictured in the stills gallery included on this disc.
A Firecracker trailer is the only other supplemental item directly related to the films on this set. There are also trailers for other Corman exploitation films focusing on women being held captive or abused. One of those trailers features a young Tommy Lee Jones. Curiously, the same trailers are on both discs.
The picture quality varies from fair to poor on the disc but it shouldn't be a surprise that these disposable cheapies weren't handled with more care. Scratches, dust and specks abound but you can make out what's happening without any trouble. The occasional close up shot will be sharp and clean but those moments are the exception. Most of the time, the image is soft, color timing is inconsistent within the same scene, and grain is very noticeable during darker scenes. The mono audio is not bad on Too Hot to Handle but it's often weak or indistinct on the other two movies.
Viewers who enjoy the intersection of martial arts and exploitation cinema have their reasons. There's a bit of the best of both worlds here. Fans can see strong beautiful women beat up their male oppressors, but they may have their clothes ripped away in the course of the chopping, punching, and kicking. Roger Corman's Cult Classics: Lethal Ladies Collection is a good package for sampling this genre. One movie is a really good production despite its sleazy pedigree; the other two are merely examples of the genre.
Guilty pleasure viewing.
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Scales of Justice, T.N.T. Jackson
Perp Profile, T.N.T. Jackson
Studio: Shout! Factory
Distinguishing Marks, T.N.T. Jackson
Scales of Justice, Too Hot To Handle
Perp Profile, Too Hot To Handle
Studio: Shout! Factory
Distinguishing Marks, Too Hot To Handle
Scales of Justice, Firecracker
Perp Profile, Firecracker
Studio: Shout! Factory
Distinguishing Marks, Firecracker
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