By: John M Jerva
I was thinking a while back about certain action stars who haven’t received enough love on my site and one name that immediately came to mind, and I apologize on my knees for neglecting him, was the Aussie powerhouse Richard Norton. A staple in countless action films like Kickfighter, Rage and Honor and my personal favorite Under the Gun to literally just name a few, Norton was action cinema elite during the 80’s and 90’s in both the East and West markets. Norton always brought his signature fighting prowess to the screen for fans to enjoy and he definitely should have been a bigger and more mainstream star. Norton is a natural action star as he has the charisma, personality and humor to go along with his devastating moves and make no mistake, they are devastating. I can’t tell you how many films I sat through growing up which proceeded to star Norton as both protagonist and antagonist and regardless of what part he was playing, he always gave the audience want they came for and that was some serious bone smashing martial arts mojo.
I’m definitely going to give Mr. Norton more frequent shout outs in the future, but I thought I’d start with one of his 90’s DTV gems where he was front and center for all the action. The movie was called Death Fight or Rage depending on which country you lived in, and it came to us courtesy of Mehnahem Golan’s 21st Century Film Company and director Anthony Maharaj who you might remember also gave us the equally awesome Richard Norton films Not Another Mistake (AKA Crossfire) and Return of the Kickfighter. Golan had separated from his famous cousin Yoram Globus and Cannon Films which was going belly up to start this new venture which was essentially just like Cannon but with smaller budgets for their action films. Make no mistake, even though a majority of these films didn’t have the cheddar of Cannon, there was still something special about them. Stars like Michael Pare, Jan-Michael Vincent and even Rob Lowe graced the screen in some of 21st Century’s offerings and Norton was looking like he might be the one star that they were looking for. Unfortunately, it never came to pass but Norton still gave us this special entry where he plays a man who is framed for murder and must turn into a one-man war to clear his name and take down those responsible. A massive number of bones are broken, and Norton flashes his lethal skills aplenty during the film’s running time.
The plot is your straightforward revenge thriller punctuated by several sequences of fight action. In it, Norton plays Jack Dameron who is the adopted son to a powerful Asian family who are big in the trading business. As a child, jack saw his parents mercilessly gunned down and afterwards Papa Fung (Jose Mari Avallena), who was his father’s partner and friend, took him in as his own. Fung also had a son named Chiang (Franco Guerrero, who is best known for his role in the 1981 cult classic The One Armed Executioner) who was less than thrilled with his new adoptive brother.
Fast forward to 1993 and Jack is a successful businessman who works for Fung, and he has just been promoted to basically take over his adoptive father’s company. He’s got the perfect life and the perfect wife in Sarah (Karen Moncrieff) who worships the ground Jack walks on and is also a successful attorney. On the other hand, Chiang is as crooked as they come, as he dabbles in everything that is illegal including arms and drug dealing, prostitution and good old underground illegal fighting tournaments. Jack’s success doesn’t sit well with Chiang, of course, because even though he’s a major disappointed to daddy, he still feels he should be in charge of the company. The nerve. Before you can say “framed,” Jack is sought after for the death of a beautiful young woman who worked for him and must now find out who framed him. It doesn’t help that Jack had a fling with her and it’s quite awkward when his wife has to defend him. She knows he’s not a killer but just a two-timing fool. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out who is behind all this but it’s still fun to see Jack unleash his fist of fury moves on a horde of henchmen who come after him as he runs a gauntlet of the criminal underworld to find the guilty and clear his name once and for all. We all know it’s Chiang so that’s definitely not a spoiler alert.
90’s DTV action films usually had the revenge plot as a staple of the times, but plot was always secondary to the punishing action that we got onscreen. Norton is a natural leading man and even though he dabbled in all genres, it was the high-octane entries that he will always be known for. Death Fight is crude and low budgeted, but it is still elevated by Norton and some pretty decent action scenes that also include a little firepower in the finale. It may take a while for the movie to get going but once Chiang’s plans are set in motion, it is virtually non-stop with the mayhem until the end credits roll. Forget about the suspect editing choices and the campy acting from the supporting players, it’s all about the brutality here and with that we had a winner.
Throughout his career, Norton usually played in ensemble pieces and always teamed up with other stars like Cynthia Rothrock with which he is good friends with but there are a few where Norton takes center stage, and these are his best offerings in his filmography. Death Fight has the look and feel of a Cirio H. Santiago movie as there are many actors present who also featured in those films and it was shot in the Philippines with that grainy, documentary dark look to it. It is a major setback to the movie that it’s shot with that dark aesthetic so sometimes it’s hard to see what’s going on especially when it’s nighttime. This isn’t a constant problem though and thankfully most of the action is viewable when the time comes, and they actually spent money on some lighting rigs.
Like I stated before, this film is elevated by Norton who was always spectacular in his onscreen fights. He is the real deal having been a black belt since 17 and he was a professional bodyguard and trainer to the stars before he made movies. Norton trained with Chuck Norris, and it was Norris’ 1980 cult classic The Octagon where he got his theatrical start playing a foe. Norton has devastating speed and power and his execution is flawless with show stopping intensity and his fight sequences were ahead of its time. The last third of the movie has Norton performing a martial arts marathon as there is essentially one fight sequence after another.
Another reason that makes Death Fight a rare, albeit forgotten, gem is that Norton is surrounded by serious action talent like Ron Vreeken, who served as fight choreographer, and Chuck Jeffreys (Bloodmoon). Vreeken is a fellow martial arts expert who was a regular opponent that Norton fought on more than one occasion in his films, and they get into an excellent tussle in the middle of the movie when Jack comes calling for answers. Jeffreys, who is best described as Eddie Murphy’s doppelgänger who can kick some serious ass plays a Jamaican named I-Ron who works for Chiang and he and Norton have a fast and furious altercation at the end that utilizes both men’s skillset and is a dazzling display of extreme and gravity defying fight action.
There is also the cliche sidekick that Jack meets in prison named Wiley (Henry Strjakowski) who helps Jack on his personal quest for redemption. Wiley is an ex-con as well who served in the war, so he’s got some skills of his own that helps take on Chiang’s army when the hammer drops at the end. Strjakowski was one of those actors that I was talking about that was featured in Cirio H. Santiago joints. I did find it refreshing that Wiley actually survives the climax as it was common for the trusty old sidekick to meet his maker in these types of films.
The finale delivers the goods as Jack and Wiley assault Chiang’s compound for one last ditch effort to stop the criminal mastermind and the action is the perfect blend of fisticuffs and firepower with Wiley blasting his way through countless, faceless stunt players with machine guns and grenades while Jack stealthily takes down his opponents with only his hands and feet because, you know how it goes, he doesn’t need a weapon. He is a weapon! It’s a pretty ambitious climax for a smaller scale film and I always loved action films that merged firefights and hand to hand as they were the best of both worlds. It’s like the filmmakers just understood us.
All the action culminates in the tried-and-true showdown between brothers as Jack takes on Chiang for all the glory and Guerrero does hold his own as well even though Norton is the superior fighter and it’s a pretty one-sided affair. Norton gets the opportunity to perform all of his patented moves and we get more than our fair share of slo-mo money shots. Fun fact: Norton and Guerrero would also throwdown before this one in Not Another Mistake and Return of the Kickfighter for those of you keeping score at home. There is also a plot twist to the proceedings after all the bodies hit the floor that you’ll see coming a mile away but that’s the charm of these kinds of movies as it would have been a downer if the true culprit in jack’s betrayal didn’t show his ugly head.
Overall, Death Fight might not have the budget or originality of some movies in the day, but it wins you over with the relentless action and fight sequences. Richard Norton is a legit martial arts action star who can act as well, and he always elevates the material regardless of budget or production values. Whether it was the Hong Kong flicks he was showcased in or these Western offerings, Norton was top tier and is always a pleasure to watch when he breaks out the pain. This particular movie is low budget action schlock at its finest that knows what it’s doing and who its audience is. It isn’t anything we haven’t seen before in countless other assembly line video store flicks and the acting from a majority of the supporting players is suspect to say the least but it’s all about the damage here and the man of the hour and with that Death Fight delivers on all the guilty pleasure fronts.