Lethal Ladies (Vol. 1 Firecracker, TNT Jackson, Too Hot to Handle)
Directors - Cirio H. Santiago, Don Schain
Cast - Jillian Kessner, Jeanne Bell, Cheri Caffaro
Country of Origin - USA
Discs - 2
MSRP - $24.97
Distributor - Shout Factory
Reviewer - Bobby Morgan
The Films: 3/5
Ever since catching Mark Hartley’s excellent documentary Machete Maidens Unleashed I’ve been looking for the right time to get caught up on Filipino exploitation flicks. No movie producer got as much mileage out of the atmosphere and local color (not to mention the bargain basement labor) of the humid, war-torn nation the Philippines as Roger Corman. The prolific B-movie maven bankrolled sleazy drive-in epics of every subgenre that were filmed there, from lurid women-in-prison flicks to bone-crunching kung fu epics. For the latest entry in their ever-growing Roger Corman Cult Classics library Shout! Factory has rounded up three of the producer’s finest Filipino-lensed actioners powered by pure, unadulterated feminine sex appeal and great helpings of low-budget ass-kickery.
Karate expert Susanne Carter (Jillian Kesner) arrives in the Philippines looking for her missing sister. Not ten seconds after reaching her hotel room she’s attacked by some of the less friendlier locals, but quickly demonstrates that she can hold her own no problem. After that surprise attack Susanne begins her investigation, which ultimately leads her to a drug smuggling operation presided over by urbane American Erik (Ken Metcalfe, who also co-wrote the script) and enforced by Grip (Vic Diaz) and Chuck Donner (Darby Hinton). Donner also competes for Erik in illegal martial arts battles to the death for the fun and financial pleasure of his employer and his international clientele. As Erik finds his operation coming under attack by violent competition secretly led by Chuck, Susanne finds herself growing more attracted to Donner and his manly white man afro. But her attempts to track down the whereabouts of her sister soon have her running afoul of the local police, the vicious Grip, and eventually Chuck. It all builds to one last fight to the death where all will be revealed and nothing will be left to chance. Wow, that sounds pretty cheesy.
Also known as Naked Fist, Firecracker runs a lean and hard (much like the gorgeous Ms. Kesner) 77 minutes and rarely lets up for a breath. In fact there are three martial arts brawls in the first ten minutes alone, with many more to come. Plot and character have no place in this realm; Firecracker is pure action, attitude, and sex, and its star Jillian Kesner has all three of those important elements in spades. In my research into the background on this movie I found out that Kesner was born in Portsmouth, VA and had a parent in the U.S. Navy, just like me. If Firecracker has a star it’s definitely her. While Kesner may not be much of a actress (and that’s not really a bad thing here since no one in this movie can really act) she fit’s the part perfectly and brings plenty of charm, sensuality, and ass-kicking verve to her limited role. Tanned, blonde, and gutsy Kesner puts vapid, antiseptic automatons like Angelina Jolie who get shoehorned into female action hero roles to shame. Sadly she never went on to become the action queen of the drive-in that she should’ve been and Jillian Kesner died on December 5, 2007 from a staph infection at the age of 58. Although no one else in the cast were going to be standing on stage at the Shrine Auditorium in the near future their collective lack of acting talent never distracts from the fast-moving plot, but whoever thought Darby Hinton would make a handsome leading man obviously didn’t look at him head shots enough. The guy looks like Klaus Kinski if he tried to be a porn star in the 70’s. Filipino exploitation stalwart Vic Diaz is on hand to fill the screen with his unique brand of corpulent menace. Looking like the sweaty, bug-eyed demonic progeny of Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet, Diaz is a hoot particularly in the scene when he forces Susanne to do battle with a poisonous Filipino snake, a fight that is over as soon as it begins. Prior to the snake fight Diaz interrogates Susanne about her reasons for coming to the Philippines and whenever he says the word “purpose” it ends up sounding like “porpoise”. Maybe Vic was thinking of what to have for lunch after the scene was in the can.
But I have still haven’t told you about the best part of the movie: after more than 40 minutes into Firecracker the plot, or what plot there is, stops dead cold for a five-minute sequence where Susanne gets chased by a pair of would-be rapists through a warehouse and must fight them off. There are many reasons why I’m paying special attention to this scene, and the first and most important is that it is fucking awesome and possibly one of the greatest scenes in the history of cinema. I truly believe this scene is the reason why pioneering filmmakers like Georges Melies, D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, John Ford, and Orson Welles to name but a few embraced the art of the moving image in the first place. In these five glorious minutes Susanne gets her dress ripped off and her bra cleaved in half by a scythe-wielding thug and must take him down in nothing but her panties, an unfortunate security guard suffers a violent demise, and another scumbag gets to die via a buzz saw to his face.
The credits list Allan Holzman, who later directed the grindhouse sci-fi cult classic Forbidden World for Roger Corman, as the director of additional scenes in addition to credited director Cirio H. Santiago, a Filipino native who helmed the foreign arm of the Firecracker production. I’m assuming that this scene was part of Holzman’s reshoots, which were likely done back in the States since the look of the film is different than Santiago’s footage and the scene has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the movie. Corman no doubt was unsatisfied with the amount of bloodshed and bare Kesner flesh Santiago brought him (although there would be copious amounts of both later in the movie) and assigned Holzman to spice up the proceedings. All I can say is, thank you Roger and Allan, and thank you very much Jillian Kesner….wherever you are.
The movie just gets more whacked out as it reaches the finale. We’re treated to a crazy love scene between Susanne and Chuck that involves clothes being sliced off with a knife and a punch to the face, a horror movie-style “cat scare” that makes no sense in the context of the story, and there’s even a guy floating around the plot named Rey who gets in on the action and indulges his inner Bruce Lee in the finale. And I can’t forget to mention the movie’s excessive use of the great electronica score from the previous year’s New World release Shogun Assassin, which Quentin Tarantino referenced in Kill Bill Volume Two. Firecracker is the best kind of cinematic junk food: delicious, filling, bad for your brain but good for your soul. It also might give you an erection too. Rest in peace Jillian.
TNT JACKSON (1974)
Set in Hong Kong but actually filmed in the Philippines, TNT Jackson tells the story of Diana Jackson (Jeanne Bell), an American karate expert who has arrived in the city looking for her missing brother Stag. Her investigation into his disappearance leads her into the world of notorious drug smuggler Syd (Ken Metcalfe again) and his chief henchman Charlie (Stan Shaw), not to mention a fight with a gang of faceless, underpaid Filipino extras every ten minutes. Diana soon finds herself becoming romantically invoved with Charlie, who as it turns out has grown tired of being Syd’s lackey and is looking to take over the drug action in Hong Kong by sabotaging his boss’ narcotics shipments and is also the one responsible for killing her brother. As the local police close in and the Hong Kong criminal underworld primes to explode into chaos Diana, who every other character in the movie save for Charlie refers to as “the black chick”, will take her revenge for Stag’s death and show all those lousy dope-pushin’ motherfuckers why they call her TNT!
So this movie and Firecracker are basically the same flick: they share directors (Cirio Santiago), a writer/co-star (Ken Metcalfe, who co-wrote Firecracker and played its chief villain), and their plots are so similar in concept and execution that the filmmakers should never have even bothered trying to make the Philippines look anything remotely like Hong Kong. Oh wait, they didn’t. No matter; TNT Jackson is 72 minutes of mindless but harmless fun with an appealing heroine and come halfway decent action scenes. Santiago may have been a soulless hack but at least he knew how to keep the action moving and throw logic to the wind. The aforementioned Metcalfe is joined on scripting duties here by good ol’ Walter Paisley himself, genre great Dick Miller (A Bucket of Blood, The Howling), but the script is little more than a clothesline on which to hang the multiple fisticuffs and to spotlight the ample assets of the film’s star, the one and only Jeanne Bell.
Bell is probably best known as the second African-American Playboy Playmate in history and the first to grace the magazine’s cover. Oddly enough the Playmate of the Month who came after Bell was another future B-movie queen, Claudia Jennings (Gator Bait, Deathsport). Bell is very sexy and sports more vivacious attitude than acting ability but that can’t always compensate for a lack of screen presence. If Bell’s scenes didn’t move so fast, like everything else in the movie, she would start to become irritating. Imagine what Pam Grier could have done with this part. After all what is TNT Jackson if not an attempt by Corman to merge the successful blaxploitation flicks and dollar store kung fu flicks that had flooded drive-in theaters throughout the 70’s and 80’s? Stan Shaw, an actor who started out in the Issac Hayes bounty hunter classic Truck Turner (my personal favorite blaxploitation flick) and would later go on to appear in films ranging from the original Rocky to Fred Dekker’s The Monster Squad and the 1995 seagoing box-office bomb Cutthroat Island, gets top acting honors as the duplicitous criminal mastermind-in-the-making Charlie with a killer combo of smooth charisma and a wardrobe loud enough for Ray Charles to notice.
The action scenes are serviceable but they could have been better if Bell looked like she knew anything resembling a karate move (like Firecracker star Jillian Kesner) but her “technique” is a sorry series of kicks, punches, and guttural screeching that is aided rather poorly by Santiago speeding up the fight scenes and removing frames in the editing room to give the martial arts combat the attempted appearance more power and intensity. It looks rather crappy but fortunately for us the movie is over long before you get to think about it and in her final fight with Charlie TNT gets to deliver a deathblow that would make Sonny Chiba’s jaw hit the floor. Plus the producers had the good sense to get Jeanne Bell to do a topless fight scene, all in the name of creating a timeless work of art.
TOO HOT TO HANDLE (1977)
International assassin-for-hire Samantha Fox (Cheri Caffaro) has been contracted to take out four disreputable gangsters in the Philippines. Using an alluring combination of her sultry feminine wiles and deadly execution techniques Fox does in her high-priced targets one by one. But the killings attract the attention of local cops De La Torres (Aharon Ipale) and Sanchez (Vic Diaz in a rare good guy turn). As De La Torres gets closer to Fox the two completely different individuals begin to fall for one another, but when his duty to uphold the law looks to interfere with her mission to cripple the country’s criminal underworld the cop and the resourceful hit-woman will have to decide where their allegiances truly belong.
Another lackluster entry in New World Pictures’ contribution to the Filipinosploitation trend, Too Hot to Handle manages at times to overcome its paper thin plot, glacial pacing, and poorly-choreographed fight scenes thanks to the movie’s star, Cheri Caffaro. She exudes fiery charisma and dangerous sexuality in each of her scenes and she speaks her every line of dialogue like the world’s greatest phone sex operator. The Fox character’s only male counterparts are Danny Ocean in Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s trilogy and the Tall Man from the Phantasm series: tough, smart, and supernaturally cunning. Caffaro carries Too Hot to Handle over its roughest patches including the chemistry-free romance with her co-star Ipale, who recites his dialogue like a student in an “English as a Second Language” learning annex course. The scenes where Fox dispatches her targets rise to comically overwrought heights at times; she seems more like a revenge-driven serial killer here especially when she treats a cosmetics baroness who dabbles in white slavery to an electrocution via facial mudpack. Working from a script written by the people who would later conceive KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park, director Don Schain, Caffaro’s then-husband and frequent collaborator does a competent job making Cheri look good and the action scenes mercifully brief when his leading lady’s non-existent martial arts moves start to annoy. Caffaro’s undeniable presence just about saves the movie from being excruciatingly ordinary, but not by much.
Each movie gets a solid 1.78: 1 anamorphic widescreen transfer with English Dolby 2.0 mono soundtracks. The transfers sparkle with neon hues and deep shadows with little grain or print damage. The audio tracks are hardly reference quality but they get the job done, as that’s all you can ask from movies hot off the Corman schlock assembly line.
The only feature on the Firecracker/TNT Jackson disc is a reel of scratchy trailers for New World Pictures also available on DVD through Shout! Factory: Jackson County Jail (featuring Tommy Lee Jones in one of his earliest acting gigs), The Big Bird Cage, The Hot Box, and finally Firecracker. The Firecracker spot touts its star Jillian Kesner as the “winner of the Black Belt Olympics” (whatever the hell those are, or were) and appears to have been narrated by Ernie Anderson, better known as the voice of ABC during the 1970’s and 80’s, the Cleveland-based horror host Ghoulardi, and the father of filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson. Given that Anderson was fond of using firecrackers on his Ghoulardi program I wonder if he was handed the assignment of narrating the Firecracker trailer as an ironic joke.
The same trailers can be found on disc two and Too Hot to Handle comes with a commentary from star Cheri Caffaro moderated by American Grindhouse director Elijah Drenner and a stills gallery. The commentary is very entertaining and enlightening as Caffaro and Drenner discuss filming in the Philippines, stories about the production, and other interesting topics.
Firecracker comes through as best in show in this delightfully sordid collection of grindhouse girl power, but all three movies are choice mindless fun for the undiscriminating B-movie buff. Some more extra features devoted to the first two movies in the set might have made it an easy recommend. As it stands the decision is on you.