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Plot: small-time crooks and renowned amnesiac gambler teach the Triads a lesson

Like many a popular Hong Kong property the God Of Gamblers franchise has a confusing history with sub-franchises, spin-offs, and regular sequels following its initial box office success. What counts as canon largely depends on one’s personal preference as most movies in the franchise share the same talent and themes, but largely exist in their own continuities, an exception or two notwithstanding. Chow Yun-Fat, Andy Lau, and Stephen Chow at various points headline the proceedings, but the deeper one gets into the series (recurring roles for Ng Man-Tat and Sharla Cheung, among others, often as different characters from one installment to the next, don’t help either) the harder it becomes to make sense of the timelines and continuity. Some of ‘em are funnier, some of ‘em are not. Some have Jing Wong directing, others do not. What does remain a constant is that the God Of Gamblers franchise is filled with action, comedy, strikingly beautiful women and exciting high-stakes gambling matches against a variety of colorful opponents.

Ko Chun (Chow Yun-Fat) is a secretive black-tie gambler blessed with the uncanny ability to win high-stakes games even when the odds are seemingly stacked against him. For that reason he is known only as the God Of Gamblers. Ko Chun has a beautiful wife in Janet (Sharla Cheung, as Man Cheung) and lives a quiet life when not gambling. He also is a fanatic and connoisseur of preeminent chocolate and won’t settle for less. When Ko Chun’s Japanese acquaintance Mr. Wang (Luk Chuen) requests his services for a high-stakes mahjong game against nefarious loanshark Shing (Ng Man-Tat). He, of course, agrees to help his friend to even his incurred debt. Ko Chun faces Shing and his partner miss Shi (Michiko Nishiwaki) – who, judging by her set of tattoos, is involved with the Triads - and defeats them against impossible odds. Dishonored by their loss at the mahjong game the Triads send a gang of assassins to murder Ko Chun. For protection Wang sets him up with security detail Lung Ng or Dragon (Charles Heung Wah-Keung), but he’s unable to ward off the many assailants swarming Ko Chun.

Meanwhile small-time crook Michael Chan, who calls himself Little Knife (Andy Lau) on the streets, has set up a practical joke for a neighbour. Little Knife lives in the New Territories in a small house down at the waterline with his mother (Chan Lap-Ban), his girlfriend Jane (Joey Wong) and his friend Crawl (Ronald Wong). In getting away from a swarm of Triad assailants Ko Chun runs into Little Knife’s trap and crashes down a hill injuring his head. Little Knife and his friends find Ko Chun and decide to rob him now that he’s in a helpless state. To make ends meet Jane works as a hostess in a nightclub in the big city. Little Knife has an change of heart, mostly due to Jane’s intervening, and instead takes Ko Chun into the house, and nurse him back to health. Rendered amnesiac due to his head trauma Ko Chun has no recollection of his former identity, and has regressed to an infantile state – but has retained both his masterful gambling skills and his incredible love for chocolate. Thus, in lieu of actually knowing that Ko Chun is the God Of Gamblers, they dub him Chocolate. Little Knife decides to have Chocolate checked up by Dr. Toneg Wong (Dennis Chan) just to be safe. In the interim they use Chocolate for their own personal enrichment, but Ko Chun’s former gambling associates want to coerce him into playing one final high-stakes match against revered elderly Singaporean industry legend Chan Gam Sing (Bau Hon-Lam).

The titular star of the God Of Gamblers is Chow Yun-Fat, who at this point was mostly known as an actor in dramatic and romantic pieces as Love in a Fallen City (1984). Yun-Fat had finished a stint in the heroic bloodshed genre working with directors John Woo and Ringo Lam on HK action classics as A Better Tomorrow (1986), City on Fire (1987), Prison on Fire (1987) and A Better Tomorrow 2 (1987). For the romance An Autumn's Tale (1987) Yun-Fat won the Golden Horse Award for best actor. God Of Gamblers allowed Chow Yun-Fat to showcase his versatility as an actor as it combined all of the previous genres he had dabbled in. Jing Wong’s gambling movie broke Hong Kong's all-time box office records establishing gambling as a veritable genre. God Of Gamblers was the first high-profile appearance of Joey Wong after her star-making turn in Tsui Hark’s tragically romantic fantasy wuxia A Chinese Ghost Story (1987). Wong gets a few bars of Burt Bacharach’s ‘Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head’ as a theme, to establish her character’s good nature and overall innocence. When we first see Wong she’s wearing a casual shirt and ripped denims, later she can be seen wearing a very flattering figure-fitting verdant corset-dress that accentuates her athletic build. Sharla Cheung had been in Wong’s The Magic Crystal (1986) and would feature in Royal Tramp (1992) and its sequel, Kung Fu Cult Master (1993), The Sword Stained with Royal Blood (1993) and Dragon Chronicles - The Maidens Of Heavenly Mountains (1994).

Most, if not all, the comedy is derived from Chow Yun-Fat’s Ko Chun regressing back to an infantile state after his head injury. His child-like antics, and the lenghts to which the gang have to go to provide their card-playing wünderkind with a steady stream of chocolate, do give Yun-Fat the possibility to show his range as an actor. At one point Little Knife is chased by Triad goons across bamboo scaffolding which is pretty funny. Ng Man-Tat excels as the lecherous Triad loanshark and Michiko Nishiwaki does most of her acting with mere glances during the opening mahjong game. Joey Wong, having played a good amount of spectral maidens by this point, is allowed to do something else than constantly looking misty-eyed and pouting. As Jane she usually acts as the gang’s voice of reason and conscious – and Little Knife only comes around until Jane tells him to. Sharla Cheung’s Janet is pretty much a supporting character and her involvement in the plot is minimal as such. Once Jane is reunited with Ko Chun at the end of the third act there’s a wonderful sense of chemistry between her and Chow Yun-Fat. Jing Wong always had an eye for beauty and Strawberry Yeung Yuk-Mui, who plays a card-dealing waitress at one of the games later in the movie, is no exception to the rule.

Depending on your tolerance for situational – and slapstick comedy shenanigans God Of Gamblers is one of those cross-genre exercise that could only have come from Jing Wong. When Wong’s on fire he hits the marks more often than not. When he doesn’t something as nigh on incoherent as Future Cops (1993) is usually in the cards. In the interim Andy Lau and Stephen Chow were given their own sub-franchises and The Top Bet (1991) installed Carol Cheng Yu-Ling and Anita Mui as the star gamblers. It wouldn’t be until 1994 that Wong produced an official sequel to his earlier smash hit. For reasons that remain largely oblique God Of Gamblers and its belated official sequel never quite catched on in the Western hemisphere despite pushing all the right buttons. Chow Yun-Fat, now a superstar in his native Hong Kong, would eventually conquer Europe and America with the award-winning Ang Lee period costume wuxia Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) with former Girls with Guns action star Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi. In 1989 Chow Yun-Fat was just starting to find his footing in Hong Kong genre cinema.

Plot: martial arts instructor investigates the disappearance of her reporter sister

Naked Fist (released in North America as Firecracker) is an American-Filipino production helmed by producer duo Roger Corman and Cirio H. Santiago starring scandily-clad platinum blonde exploitation wonder Jillian Kesner. Derivative to the point of exhaustion Naked Fist not only is a barely disguised remake of TNT Jackson (1974) – its entire reason d’etre hinges upon the fact that it extends one scene from the earlier Santiago production into a feature length presentation. Dubbed “the world’s first erotic kung fu classicNaked Fist is neither erotic, nor a classic… It remains a prime example of Filipino exploitation cinema at its best.

For the first time, and certainly not the last, prolific Filipino director Cirio H. Santiago – a specialist in low budget Vietnam war movies, women-in-prison flicks and post-apocalyptic Mad Max (1979) ripoffs – remakes his earlier TNT Jackson (1974). Filmed from a screenplay co-written with co-star Ken Metcalfe, Naked Fist recycles the plot from TNT Jackson, and Robert Clouse infinitely superior Enter the Dragon (1973). Not content to riff on better movies Naked Fist lifts most of its music from Shogun Assassin (1980), and the trailer is set to a bootleg rendition of B-52’s ‘Planet Claire’. Santiago would plunder the same well a third time with Angelfist (1993) replacing Jillian Kesner with late shampoo heiress Cat Sassoon.

Keeping up Santiago’s tradition of female-centric actioners Naked Fist stars former model Jillian Kesner (who holds a B.A. in business from Colorado university). Kesner appeared in Happy Days as Fonzie’s girlfriend Lorraine, The Rockford Files, T.J. Hooker, and Mork & Mindy. Kesner was married to cinematographer Gary Graver at the time of Naked Fist and Raw Force (1982). Graver, who directed adult features under the alias Robert MacCallum through the 1980s, was a cinematographer who collaborated frequently with Jim Wynorski lending his talents to Alienator (1990), Sorceress (1995), and many others. Both tried restorating the unfinished Orson Welles film The Other Side of the Wind. Following Graver’s passing in 2006, Kesner continued work on the preservation of Welles’ cinematic legacy. Kesner passed away from staph infection, a complication from leukemia, in 2007.

Naked Fist claims that Kesner was the 1981 “grand prize winner at the Black Belt Olympics”, but nothing seems to substantiate that claim, neither are there any indications that she had any training in the field of martial arts, or any experience in hand-to-hand combat. For all intents and purposes, Kesner is and was no Moon Lee, Michelle Yeoh, Cynthia Khan - and certainly no Angela Mao. Naked Fist was released through Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, who ordered the filming of two extra scenes to capitalize on Kesner’s attractiveness. Director Allan Holzman was brought in to helm said two scenes: a warehouse brawl that has Kesner gradually loses clothing, and the second a not particular riveting simulated sex scene. Despite having the absolute bare minimum in terms of plot Naked Fist frequently stalls, when not coming to a complete standstill, whenever Kesner is required to shed fabric, engages enemies in combat, or does both at once.

Martial arts instructor Susanne Carter (Jillian Kesner) travels to the Philippines to investigate the mysterious death of her reporter sister Bonnie (Carolyn Smith). No sooner has Carter entered her hotel in Manila and she’s accosted by two robbers while wearing nothing but her knickers. A scene that was first seen in earlier TNT Jackson, and one that Santiago would reuse once more in Angelfist (1993) with Cat Sassoon and the breathtaking Melissa Moore. The screenplay never bothers to establish whether the two hotel thugs were working for the drug ring, or whether it was just a random encounter. Judging that the same thing happen to Keith Cooke in Albert Pyun's Heatseeker (1995) one concludes that this sort of thing is typical in the Philippines. In the San Francis Bar Carter meets barman/owner Pete (Pete Cooper, as Peter Cooper) and Rey (Rey Malonzo, as Raymond King). For no apparent reason a brawl breaks loose. Having meted out swift punishment to all that assail her, Pete and Rey agree that Susanne is “all right”. Deciding to investigate Chuck Donner (Darby Hinton) after obtaining a picture of him on her sister’s camera, Rey suggests Carter uses wanting to learn Arnis as a front for her investigation. Ever so eloquent, Susanne calls Arnis de mano “the thing with the sticks” when talking to Rey’s master while visiting his training camp in the nearby jungle.

At a legitimate martial arts venue Carter initiates contact with Donner under the pretense of looking for a place to work out, and to make money to pay for her travel expenses. “She’s good. Too good,” one character observes, “she’s a martial arts teacher. 6th dan black belt," one that "owns her own dojo in L.A.” In the opening fight on the theater stage Omar Camar, one of the most senior Aikido instructors in the Philippines, is seen dishing out punishment. Watching a master at work Carter simply shrugs it off as “this kid’s stuff” and assures Donner that she’s up for it, “if the money’s right!” Erik Stoller, Ken Metcalfe in a role he inhabited once before in TNT Jackson, urges Chuck to remain vigilant, but he’s soon smitten with the high-kicking hottie. In Angelfist, Santiago’s second reiteration of TNT Jackson, Metcalfe has but a minor role. Meanwhile Erik’s girlfriend Malow (Santiago regular Chandra Romero) has her reservations about the way Stoller conducts his illicit business.

In a stunning error of judgment that will ultimately spell his demise Donner decides to show The Arena, a venue for high-stakes clandestine underground death matches that was seen earlier in the Cannon produced Enter the Ninja (1981), to Carter. While continuing her investigation into the circumstances surrounding her sister Bonnie’s death Susanne bones up her Arnis de mano knowledge at the training camp of Rey’s master all while doing some boning of her own to keep Donner at bay. Not letting sleeping dogs lie Carter is soon accosted by a number of police thugs, led by one Tony (Tony Ferrer) warning her to stay away from Donner and the drug cartel, Carter continues her investigation despite the obvious level of resistance. The thugs soon get a first-hand experience of Carter's Naked Fist.

Having catched her breath Carter is then accosted by Grip (or Griff in some prints, Santiago regular Vic Diaz) and his thugs, who come armed with a cobra and what he calls “truth serum” and want to know her true motives. In a scene later recreated in the John Woo directed Jean-Claude van Damme actioner Hard Target (1995), Carter punches Grip’s snake out cold and throws it in Grip’s face. Chuck happens upon the aftermath of the fight, and decides to take Susanne to a training camp for The Arena combatants. After partaking in one of the matches Carter leaves disgusted, and is followed yet another group of thugs. Fighting off goons one by one Susanne is forced to take off her dress and heels before slipping into a nearby warehouse. It is here that the first of two Allan Holzman directed scenes are spliced in. During an economic chase through a hallway, and for no apparent reason other than to be included in the promotional trailer, Carter bends over alluringly doing a “come hither” finger-wag while looking seductively at the camera. Moments later Susanne kicks one thug into a running circular saw in a scene later refurbished in the Andrew Davis directed Steven Seagal actioner Under Siege (1992).

A thug in a Hawaii shirt lunges at Susanne dangerously with a sickle slicing her front-fastening bra open - and miraculously not hurting her in the process - while remaining sturdily in place. Carter discards her bra and Naked Fist then recycles the brawl from TNT Jackson wherein Playboy model Jeannie Bell engaged in topless kung fu. In what must be the movie’s most clever sight gag the topless fight is situated in front of boxes labelled Rack Master. Whether this particular sight gag was envisaged by producer Corman, or directors Santiago and Holzman, was never disclosed. In what is either a brilliant piece of reverse psychology, or alternatively a display of Carter’s obtuseness – as she has pieced together clues that Erik (and Chuck) are responsible for her sister’s death at this point - she beds Donner in a drawn-out, über sleazy, neon-lit 4-minute sex scene that includes foreplay with knives, that was helmed by Allan Holzman at behest of Roger Corman. During the sex scene Kesner says, in a line scribbled straight from an adult feature, “I can feel the blood pulse inside your head” – she never specifies which head. At this point Malow has informed Susanne that she’s a deep undercover narcotics operative, and that it was Erik that ordered Chuck to kill Bonnie. Carter confronts Donner in The Arena for a match to the death killing him by dual ocular impalement.

Naked Fist (or Firecracker, depending on your preference) exists merely by the grace of its leading actress. Jillian Kesner was a beautiful, athletic and curvaceous woman that acted reasonably, and held her own in a variety of roles. While Naked Fist sold itself on the dubious merit as “the first erotic kung fu classic” it was hardly erotic, or a classic, despite the ample amount of nudity. Why Kesner never ended up working with Hawaii action guru Andy Sidaris is a question for the ages. Next year’s genre-hybrid Raw Force allowed Kesner to flex her muscles both as an actress and as an athlete. Completely relentless as far as pace is concerned Naked Fist excels neither in the martial arts department, nor in its daft attempts at eroticism. Jillian Kesner is frequently in various stages of undress, but that alone isn’t enough to keep attention to what otherwise is a pedestrian but high-octane chop sockey action movie. Not remotely intelligent or thought-provoking by any stretch of the imagination Naked Fist has all the brawn, and none of the brain. What it does have is boobs, and Kesner is not afraid to flaunt them when it matters.