By: John M jerva
First of all, I must send out a very heartfelt thank you for my brother in action Eoin Friel of The Action Elite for getting me a copy of Vinegar Syndrome’s new 4K restoration of the cult 90’s martial arts franchise Tiger Claws which just recently hit. To say that I’ve had struggles last year and into 2022 would be a vast understatement so this thoughtful gesture from Eoin put a huge smile on my face and I am here to tell you that if you’re a fan of 90’s DTV martial arts action, then this special edition set is a must have for your collection. I commend Vinegar Syndrome for putting out these lesser known treasures from the 80’s and 90’s and packing them with priceless extras that really get into each movie.
For those of you who might not know about the Tiger Claws movies, they were lower budgeted fight pics which featured Brazilian-born Lebanese/Canadian martial arts expert and filmmaker Jala Merhi as well as the Lady dragon of martial arts action cinema herself Cynthia Rothrock. Enter the Dragon and Bloodsport icon Bolo Yeung is also featured as the main villain Chong in the first film and the muscular Chinese Hercules is also in the second film as more of an anti-hero. Throw in King of the Kickboxers and No Retreat No Surrender star Loren Avedon for the third movie and this is one trilogy of movies that definitely pack a punch in your video arsenal.
TIGER CLAWS (1992)
The first movie stars Merhi and Rothrock as two New York City cops who are tasked with trying to find and stop a ruthless killer who is an expert in the martial arts and kills his victims, who are all masters in the arts, with the elusive art known as Tiger Claws. Merhi plays detective Tarek Richards and Rothrock is his partner Linda Masterson while Yeung is the brutal antagonist known simply as Chong.
In terms of plot, Tiger Claws, like any other DTV fight flick from the era, has a pretty simple plot and that’s all you need as a gateway to all the hard hitting fisticuffs that are on display throughout the film’s running time. Merhi as Richards is the cop assigned to the serial killer case and as an expert in the arts, he goes undercover in a martial arts school to track down the Tiger Claws killer and Rothrock’s Masterson is assigned to Tarek to help track down Chong as she has her own set of lethal skills as well. Merhi and Rothrock have pretty solid on screen chemistry and deliver some good dialogue between each other while they’re not putting down the bad guys with their particular skill set. Unfortunately, in my mind, Rothrock is underused to a point for a great deal of the film as it is Merhi’s Richards who is the main star here but Rothrock does get ample opportunity to showcase her championship winning skills especially in the final third of the film.
Merhi is a solid on screen fighter also and he sells the fights of which he is involved in many before the credits roll. I must confess that I didn’t know who Merhi was before I rented the movie for the first time at my local video store but he became a favorite of mine throughout the 90’s and even the earlier part of the 2000’s while he was still making films.
Bolo Yeung is as advertised, and he is just as menacing here as he was in Bloodsport and his earlier entries. He is the very definition of the strong and silent type as his dialogue is kept to a minimum and his martial arts prowess does the talking for him. There isn’t much character depth to his role of Chong and we really never learn why he’s killing all these masters but that’s a plot hole that is easily forgivable as it’s all about the action here. Yeung is imposing to say the least and he makes for a rather brutal and satisfying bad guy.
With most of these films, the acting is spotty especially with the supporting players and while there aren’t any twists to speak of, the simple plot and atmosphere makes this addition a must see. It’s all about the action of course and with it, there’s a beatdown every few minutes and the choreography is solid. The cast is made up of local Canadian martial arts talent as this was filmed mostly in Toronto, so it adds a layer of authenticity to the pic as all these players have legit fighting skills. Merhi and Rothrock get plenty of chances to shine and while Rothrock gets to tussle with Yeung which is a plus, Merhi gets the inevitable showdown with Yeung and it does not disappoint with furious moves and slo-mo effects that heighten the action.
Overall, Tiger Claws is quintessential 90’s martial arts action with Jalal Merhi and Cynthia Rothrock plating their roles to DTV perfection. Bolo Yeung is always a welcome sight and he needed to play more antagonists during this time period as he had the formidable presence and skills to deliver what fans wanted.
TIGER CLAWS 2 (1996)
Four years later martial arts film enthusiasts were treated to a sequel to the original Tiger Claws which brought back the three principal stars of the original in Jalal Merhi, Cynthia Rothrock and Bolo Yeung. Rothrock’s Detective Linda Masterson is now working in San Francisco and when she stumbles upon the same ritual killings, she ran into in NYC a few years back, she calls upon Detective Tarek Richards to come and help her as Chong who was put away in the first film is back and up to his old tricks. This time however, there is more of a mystical approach to the action and Richards and Masterson are forced to compete in a deadly underground fighting tournament here all is not what it seems.
Bolo Yeung is back as Chong and his character has an interesting arc this time around as he is more of an anti-hero with a certain code of honor who is duped by his brother to avenge his master but, of course, all is not what it seems, and Chong turns a 180 during the movie and resembles more of a good guy in the proceedings. Unfortunately, as we learn from Merhi in the special features interview, there was a money problem between him and Yeung which led to Yeung leaving production with 75% of the film done. Because of this, Yeung is not visible at the end and his main fight isn’t even him, but a stunt double dressed in a cloak. I always wondered about that and now we know the answer.
Tiger Claws 2 does boast a pretty solid supporting cast which includes Harry Mok and veteran 90’s baddie Evan Lurie who plays the ruthless Victor. Lurie made multiple action films during this era and just like Matthias Hues, he was usually on the dark side. He’s an accomplished martial artist though and he does get the opportunity to throwdown during the proceedings and Mok is another solid martial arts film wizard who always delivers the on-screen fisticuffs goods. Eric Lee is also present, but he is almost unrecognizable as he’s made to look older than he really is.
Merhi and Rothrock make for a likeable duo once again and sadly just like in the first film, Rothrock isn’t given a lot to do in the action department until the last third but when she does go full auto it’s definitely a highlight of the movie. The production budget for the sequel was bigger so this led to many more fights in the movie, and you can never go wrong with putting in an underground fight tourney in an action movie. The second half of the film is a virtual non-stop fight fest with Merhi, Rothrock and company all getting in on the action and the fists and feet fly with the desired results that make this a welcome addition to the VHS action craze.
One unpopular aspect with number two is that a mystical element is introduced into the plot which includes time travel and a magical portal. This plot point might take some out of the movie, but I was fine with it and thought it even enhanced the martial art aspect a little with a little bit of the unknown. It doesn’t overtake the action and drama too and is only involved mostly at the end.
Overall, Tiger Claws 2 is a solid notch in the franchise with Merhi and Rothrock delivering the same good on screen chemistry and the lightning paced action they are known for. Bolo Yeung’s character arc going from crazed killer to a more sympathetic and misunderstood warrior makes for an interesting part of the movie and he is sadly missed from the finale. Evan Lurie, Harry Mok and Eric Lee are also solid and there is nothing but fight action in the second half making this one an enjoyable ride from start to finish.
TIGER CLAWS 3 (2000)
Now we come to the black sheep of the Tiger Claws trilogy with the third movie which hit the market as the martial arts boom of the 90’s was sadly winding down. I could never get enough of these fight films and will always welcome them with open arms and this entry has its issues, but it still delivers the action and mayhem we have all grown accustomed too.
Tiger Claws 3 really amps up the magical and mystical aspects that were introduced in the second one and sadly, Bolo Yeung did not return for obvious reasons. This time around, we have new villains which consists of three supernatural beings known as the 3 Masters of Shanghai. It’s funny as I felt that these new baddies were a direct homage to General Zod and his lackies in Superman 2. You can definitely see it as the leader is Zod the female is Ursa and we even have a larger, formidable opponent that doesn’t say anything just like Jack O’Halloran’s Nod. They even dress in similar black outfits so I’ll let you decide for yourself on that one but it’s pretty clear in my eyes.
Resident 90’s martial arts action hero Loren Avedon is also a main villain Stryker who brings back the centuries old warriors and it’s refreshing to see him ham it up as a baddie as most of his roles in the 90’s were of the valiant variety. Avedon steals the show every chance he gets and welcomely gets to spotlight his awesome array of Tae Kwon Do skills like he did in the past. Avedon is one of those unsung heroes of DTV action that needs to resurface today and polish off his on-screen fighting abilities.
The biggest crime of the third movie is a real bummer and if you haven’t seen the film yet then stop reading because the next wave of lines contains spoilers. Cynthia Rothrock’s Linda Masterson does return for this entry but she is killed within the first ten minutes,. She does get a fight scene before she is taken down but it’s mostly with a staff in her hands. We come to learn in the interviews included in this set that Rothrock was pregnant at the time and couldn’t really do anything physical, so it does make sense now even though she is sorely missed in the rest of the movie. It’s funny how she’s showcased on the key art for the North American release and she’s basically an extended cameo. That’s marketing for you.
The majority of number three has Jalal Merhi’s Tarek Richards dealing with Avedon’s Stryker and the three supernatural villains and he trains with Master Jin (Carter Wong), another underused martial arts movie star, to learn the deadly art of Black Tiger to accomplish his mission. We get plenty of training sequences and Tarek learns a few new tricks from his new master to save the day. I love when our hero must learn a new discipline that is buried within them and only then, when they’ve mastered it, can they truly become the ultimate warrior.
This third and final installment is locked and loaded with all the action and fights you can handle and Merhi gets all the time he needs to take on the three antagonists. Carter Wong and Loren Avedon also have a fight in the finale which is a real showstopper and I do feel that their altercation was the best part of this movie. No worries though as everyone gets to throwdown and the majority of the running time has some form of martial arts action or training montage to feast your eyes at.
I go into spoiler territory once again as I’m about to talk about my major problem with the movie. Even though Tiger Claws 3 is the weaker entry in the franchise, you still get invested into the story and all the beatdowns that go along with it. Unfortunately, after all this transpires, we find out that Tarek has dreamt the whole thing and none of it after a certain point in the beginning never really happened. The good news is that Rothrock’s Masterson is still alive, but one can’t help but feel robbed at the cheap payoff which is reminiscent of the infamous Dallas plotline where Bobby wasn’t really dead. If you know what I’m talking about there, then you are old just like me. It felt like a copout and makes everything that happened in between less dramatic.
Overall, Tiger Claws 3 is the weakest link in the trilogy with Rothrock definitely missed throughout. The big reveal at the end is a major letdown but there is still non-stop fight action to be had and Loren Avedon does steal the show. Jala Merhi is solid as usual and gets to execute his moves, but it would have helped if Rothrock was right beside him like always, but I’ll forgive her because she was with child. Even though it leaves you wanting, it still kicks ass when it has too.
This new presentation of the Tiger Claws trilogy from Vinegar Syndrome looks fantastic and the picture and sound are fantastic. It comes beautifully packaged in a slip case that features old and new key art and the special features which includes interviews with both Rothrock and Merhi that are worth the price of buying this set alone. Merhi also does commentary on the films and offers up some behind the scenes goodies for fans of this genre and really delves into what it took to make these movies.
Interestingly enough, Merhi mentions in one of the interviews that a fourth film has been written and is essentially ready to go into production. I would love to see these characters return and I’m sure they still have it when it comes to the martial arts action although Merhi is looking his age. Only time will tell if one does get made but I’m on board for sure as it would certainly bring back that wonderful feeling of throwback action we so desperately crave.
Overall, the Tiger Claws trilogy is a simple must have fan any serious martial arts action fan as the movies look great and the special features are priceless. These types of 90’s action films were always a favorite of mine, and they will always hold a special place in my heart and they bring me back to a simpler time in my life. Botton line…if you’re a fan of these films, then you must pick up this set before they’re all gone and sellers on Ebay hold them hostage for price tags of over $100 dollars. I missed out on the Martial Law collection so hopefully someday I’ll be able to find that one without having to sell my first born to get it.