Plot: Charlie Case is a champion gymnast and a spy. Catch her if you can.
Hawaiian trash specialist Albert Pyun was never below stretching budgets, cutting corners were he could, and he had an affinity for making up projects on the spot. He had learned an important lesson on The Sword and the Sorcerer (1982) and Cyborg (1989): costumes, sets, props, and production design – all that stuff costs money. Why not set the action in a near-future where practically no extra work was required? Pyun was right on the money as the home video success of Nemesis (1992) would prove, and his follow-up Arcade (1993) was actually pretty ahead of its time. The big project Pyun was working on at the time was the cyberpunk/martial arts hybrid Heatseeker (1995). As these things tend to go, pre-production had been underway for some time but the project stalled for unknown reasons (in all likelihood having to do with money). Not one to sit around old Al packed up his cameras and shot one (or two) movies on the producers’ dime for as long as principal photography on Heatseeker (1995) was delayed. And so it was that Pyun shot Hong Kong 97 (1994) and Spitfire on the downtime. Lo and behold, thus the world got three Pyun romps for the price of one.
Giving credit where it is due old Al had an eye for spotting talent. He casted the practically unknown Borovnisa Blervaque in Nemesis (1992); the young, spunky and obviously talented Megan Ward in his Arcade (1993), and Spitfire (no idea what the title has to do with anything, but just roll with it) would be the star-making vehicle for Kristie Phillips. And who was miss Phillips? She was one of the most visible and publicized gymnasts in the mid-1980s. Kristie was on the cover of Sports Illustrated (September 1, 1986), crowned the 1987 senior U.S. National Champion, and on the fastlane to become one of the front-runners for the 1988 U.S. Olympic team. In short, Albert had found his star. Phillips was disciplined, flexible, and looked good in a leotard. Pyun would later introduce the world to Jill Pearce and Kimberly Warren with his Mean Guns (1997) and the ill-fated Blast (1997). The only thing needed now was a script. So Pyun, David Yorkin, and Christopher Borkgren set to outlining a halfway coherent premise on whatever napkins and empty pizza boxes that were lying around the office. That it just so happened to resemble Gymkata (1985) was purely coincidental, no doubt. Armed with something resembling a screenplay and his usual warm bodies filming began. The most creative thing about Spitfire is the Saul Bass inspired credit montage with Tina Cote furthering the idea that this really was supposed to be a James Bond knock-off.
In a luxurious resort philandering British secret agent Richard Charles (Lance Henriksen) has been spending quality time in the bedroom with his former paramour and CIA operative Amanda Case (Debra Jo Fondren). After the obligatory thrusting and fondling Case entrusts him with Ukrainian missile codes and bestows him with the knowledge that he has a daughter. The two are ambushed by Soviet spy Carla Davis (Sarah Douglas) and her henchmen (Robert Patrick and Brion James). Amanda ends up taking a bullet while Charles manages to escape with his jetpack. Meanwhile in Rome, Italy gymnast and martial arts enthusiast Charlie Case (Kristie Phillips) and drunken and disgraced reporter Rex Beechum (Tim Thomerson) both are at the sports complex. She’s preparing for the semi-finals in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and the world finals in Athens, Greece and he’s looking for the next big scoop. After the first round Charlie happens to see Richard surrender to Soviet spies and in the confusion the spy is able to slip a disc containing nuclear launch codes in her bag. Believing to have witnessed an exchange of steroids Beechum pesters Charlie on the particulars. With the clock ticking the high-kicking hottie and the permanently drunk reporter must stay out of the clutches of enemy operatives, obtain a key with help of Charlie’s spy half-brother Alain (Simon Poland), deliver them to her other half-brother Chan in Hong Kong, and rescue her father from the encroaching Soviet spies. On top of all that Charlie and Rex have to remain on schedule to partake in the tournaments in Malaysia and Greece.
As for the rest of the cast outside of Lance Henriksen and Kristie Phillips the usual suspects are all here. Tim Thomerson, Brion James, Chad Stahelski, and Simon Poland all were Pyun regulars. The biggest names were probably Robert Patrick and Playmate of the Month (September, 1977) and Playmate Of the Year 1978 Debra Jo Fondren. After his stint with Cirio H. Santiago in the Philippines Patrick had landed a pair of high-profile appearances with smaller and bigger roles in Die Hard 2 (1990) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). Apparently those weren’t enough to establish him as an A-lister and before long Robert found himself right back in the low budget wasteland from whence he came and now at the mercy of Albert Pyun. Chad Stahelski has had a career revival in recent years as a director with the John Wick franchise. Henriksen is, of course, a living monument who has appeared in as many classics as in just as many low budget trash spectaculars. And then there’s Tina Cote. Cote was something of a muse for Pyun, and here she merely can be seen in the credit montage. The entire thing does sort of brings up the one lingering question: why was there never a Tina Cote spy-action romp? Albert obviously loved filming her. Imagine what a James Bond imitation with Cote could have been, especially with that tiny black number she was wearing in Mean Guns (1997) and how Pyun loved filming her in that.
When Al’s on fire, he truly is the master of low budget action. When Al’s on point he does low budget action better than anyone else, but even in 1995 it was clear that those occassions had become the exception rather than the rule. Hong Kong 97 (1994) had the good fortune of being set in Hong Kong and starring Ming-Na Wen and Spitfire was nothing but a little timewaster and diversion before Al could commence work on the thing he was actually invested and interested in doing, Heatseeker (1995). When it comes right down to it Hong Kong 97 (1994) and Spitfire are two sides of the same coin. Not only do they share similar plots, cast, and locations – it’s almost as if either could act as a subplot or background story for the other. The action direction is actually pretty good and the choreography is better than usual with Pyun. Faint praise as it may be, but there’s actually a figment of a good idea in Spitfire. For reasons only known to old Al he never saw it fit either revisit Spitfire or extend it into a franchise, either with Phillips or without, despite all the potential the concept held. Nemesis (1992) was a minor hit on home video, and that somehow spawned four sequels, three of which Pyun directed. Why waste something as exciting as a globe-trotting gymnast / super spy fighting baddies of any stripe. No, somehow Heatseeker (1995) was the priority. No wonder Kristie Phillips never acted again.
It all becomes even more the infuriating considering the depths that Pyun was in. The mid-nineties hardly were his best time. The avalanche of Nemesis sequels were that… sequels – and they did everything but live up to the promise of the Hong Kong inspired original. By 1995 Pyun was no longer able to ride the coattails of Cyborg (1989) and The Sword and the Sorcerer (1982). Arcade (1993) was an inspired little cyberpunk ditty obviously meant to capitalize on the virtual reality craze following The Lawnmower Man (1992), but that was two years ago. As near as we can tell Pyun was in dire straits and in desperate need of a hit. It probably didn’t help that he was a year away from the disastrous Adrenalin: Fear the Rush (1996). Not only did it kill the career of Natasha Henstridge in an instant, it also was subject to extensive studio-mandated re-writes/re-shoots. If that weren’t bad enough, said re-shoots failed not only to improve the main feature, they also spawned Nemesis 4: Cry Of Angels (1996) as a by-product. More than anything else Spitfire was a missed opportunity. There was a renewed interest in James Bond with the release of GoldenEye (1995), and while old Al usually could be counted upon to strike the iron while it’s hot, he didn’t do so here. Even without Lance Henriksen (and/or a new lead actress) Spitfire begged to be further explored and expanded upon. For shame, Albert, for shame.