Firecracker (1981) – A fistfull of awesome

Firecracker aka Naked Fist, both sound like a hell of a good time, but I’m going with the former because this is one dynamite movie. It’s a dark and gritty martial arts flick from the Filipino legend of exploitation himself, Cirio H Santiago. In collaboration with writer and actor Ken Metcalfe, Firecracker is essentially a retelling of the pair’s earlier Blaxploitation martial arts romp, TNT Jackson. Filmed on location in the Philippines, you can practically feel the humidity suffocating our black belt heroine as she delves into a twisted world of drugs and blood sport in search of her missing sister. Plenty of blood and clothes are shed along the way in this action packed display of excess, with fight sequences including everything from Karate to Arnis, backed by satisfyingly tacky sound effects and a cacophonous score.

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I’m not sure why Santiago and Metcalfe wanted to put out an adaptation of something they’d already made, but I’m sure glad they did. The sweaty, tropical, Filipino setting and oh so 70s stylings make for a delightfully seedy backdrop to the narrative’s shady affairs. The exploitation quality offered up by this exotic production makes the “no holds barred” fighting and drug trading seem all the more dirty and sinister. The fight sequences are decently choreographed, cut together fast, and covered in cheesy, repeated sound effects. You might think that’s a downside, but these are some particularly woody and explosive bits of foley, partially incongruous but completely intoxicating. Nonong Buencamino’s totally unhinged synth score is another key component in tying the bizarre elements together, while also being utterly offensive – at one point featuring what sounds to be a recorder being murdered.

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Santiago clearly knows what he’s doing when it comes to these cheap thrill flicks, getting straight into the action in the opening credits with some kind of martial arts fight club. The score pulses and the atmosphere is palpable, you’ll be intrigued from the very beginning. The scene ends with the moustachioed Chuck – Darby Hinton who went on to the great Andy Sidaris’ Malibu Express – absolutely destroying a guy with a spear. The pace rarely lets up throughout the short and sweet 77 minutes. Enter our jumpsuit loving, girl next door heroine, Susanne – Jillian Kesner of various low budget movies and once Fonzy’s girlfriend. No sooner than she checks into her kitschily wallpapered hotel room is she fighting off a couple of intruders, in her sheer underwear of course. Skip straight to an over the top bar fight featuring a Filipino Bruce Lee kicking arse, Rey Malonzo, and a bearlike barman manhandling dudes all over the place – Pete Cooper, a guy with some impressively trashy credits. Susanne is only there chasing information but jumps right into the fray, only stopping to ask “how did this happen anyway?” a good while into the fight.

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Rey and Pete turn out to be very helpful to Susanne, providing information and aid as she searches for her missing sister. It turns out the sister is an investigative journalist who’s stuck her nose into the business of local drug lord and fight club owner, Erik – Dave Gilmour lookalike Ken Metcalfe, also the writer. Erik is a Scarface kind of guy, complete with his own personal heroin nurse, clearly he breaks the golden rule ‘never get high on your own supply’ too. It turns out the incredibly fashionable Chuck works for him, doing the dirty work, and there’s a lot to do when you’re into as much dodgy business as Erik. There’s a whole side plot with Erik ripping off his own supply line, featuring Arab businessmen and the fantastic Vic Diaz – a Filipino exploitation legend in his own right – as the eloquent bastard Grip. His interrogation scene is an absolute scream, involving a Philippine Cobra and the repeated question “what is your porpoise.” To the audience it’s obvious Erik and his associates are involved in the sister’s disappearance, although it takes Susanne the whole movie to figure that out.

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Santiago’s predominately local cast and crew have outdone themselves on Firecracker. Not because they do brilliant work by any stretch, but because they have created a production which blends its elements so well, despite such poor means. The western cast members fulfil their parts too, as bad guys or eye candy, or both. The way Kessner flicks her hair after every flip or kick is just mesmerising. Only occasionally does the hilariously obvious stunt double come in, complete with platinum wig. Kessner handles her plentiful fight scenes fairly capably and enthusiastically, in fact, so does the entire cast, who all seem to have some level of martial arts experience. That’s one of the reasons the movie works – it’s about martial arts, and a wide variety of them at that, so its important for fight sequences to come off at least half as decent. Did I mention Filipino Bruce Lee equivalent Rey Malonzo is just the best? Of course, it wouldn’t be a Santiago film without our leading lady having a naked punch up, so there’s that too. The Rack-Master sign in the background (mildly NSFW ) is perfect.

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The dialogue is where you really notice the low budget reality of the production. Poorly written and poorly delivered, lines seems awkward and standoffish at times, and at others downright bizarre, leading to unintentionally humorous interactions between actors. As a result, the manufactured sexual tension between Susanne and Chuck is disturbing to watch, although maybe the narrative was getting to me after one too many hurricanes. There’s a sex scene involving cutting clothes off with switchblades, for no conceivable reason, which is a standout for the sensual line “I can feel the blood pulse inside your head.” Hmm. I guess the other serious issue is Ricardo Remias’ inability to keep shots in focus, and whoever else was working the camera, but that just adds to the charm.

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Firecracker sure is a terrifically enjoyable movie. Just riding shotgun through humid, Filipino locations featuring such deliciously outdated style is great, but throw in the vast array of martial arts in practically nonstop fight sequences and you’ve got a winner. The cut-rate nature of the production just adds to the appeal, with the reheated narrative and hideous character interactions being elevated by the gritty, seedy milieu. It comes off like a cheap, Scarface precursor, told from the perspective of a collateral victim, but instead of Miami and nightclubs, it’s the Philippines and fight clubs. Don’t think too hard about it, because it gets pretty over the top, and more than a little silly. Just dig in and enjoy this buffet of martial arts exploitation. Oh, did I mention the title screen and poster are beyond awesome?

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