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Plot: tough cop investigates the disappearance of her reporter sister.

Cirio H. Santiago was a visionary. He produced 82 movies in 50 years, and directed a good hundred himself up to his passing in 2008. Santiago was the man behind the first color horror feature in the Philippines with The Blood Drinkers (1964) (with Amalia Fuentes) and the inventor of the topless kickboxing movie. First he had Playboy Playmate of the Month (October, 1969) Jean Bell in the blaxploitation martial arts sub-classic TNT Jackson (1964). At the dawn of the eighties he reimagined his classic in the form of the self-proclaimed “erotic kung fu classicNaked Fist (1981) with Jillian Kessner. Proving both that bigger isn't necessarily better and that third time isn't always the charm, the Roger Corman produced Angelfist has lousy dialog, stilted fights that make Albert Pyun look exciting, and one of the worst cases of miscasting that no amount of skin can possibly save...

The nominal star of Angelfist is Catya Sassoon, the daughter of shampoo magnate and hair stylist Vidal and sister of director Oley Sassoon and who bad movie connoisseur Joe Bob Briggs once poetically described as, “the fist of an angel and the face of a fist. . Cat was a model that lived fast and died young, and somehow parlayed her '80s sass into an acting career, or what should pass for it. Angelfist was her big break and Cat threw herself into the role with zest. Allegedly Sassoon studied tae kwon do and arnis de mano in preparation, and if her acting was nothing to particularly write home about - her martial arts would make up for it. Santiago had a habit of fabricating titles and Sassoon supposedly was the "World Karate Association North American Champion" (never mind that neither of his two former stars had any formal martial arts training either). By 1991, at age 21, Cat was addicted to drugs and alcohol and a regular at detox clinics. A year later Cat attended the 1992 Cannes Film Festival to promote Angelfist. Less than ten years later Cat died of a drug-induced heart-attack in late 2001.

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Kristie Lang (Sibel Birzag) is a photo journalist who clandestinely captures a political assassination on film in Manila. When she tries to hand over evidence to the official channels she's brick walled at American Embassy who not only are lost in never-ending bureaucracy but also have to deal with the more pressing matter of constant protests against more US military bases in the Philippines. Distraught she hands over the incriminating evidence to Sulu (Sheila Lintan), an exotic dancer at a gentlemen’s club. For this transgression Lang is murdered by the Black Brigades terrorist cell. Back in the good ol' US of A tough-as-nails cop Katara ‘Kat’ D. Lang (K.D. Lang? Really?) (Catya Sassoon) catches wind of the circumstances surrounding her sister’s passing books the next flight to Manila. Told by Bayani (Roland Dantes), Kirstie’s erstwhile trainer, that “vengeance is not an acceptable motive for entering the kumite!” she bests the man in arnis de mano impressing corrupt event promoter Mr. Carrion (Tony Carreon). Suddenly Kat is allowed to partake in the Kubate.

The only caveat is that Carrion insists that she proves her worth in a qualifying match. In the audience of said match is Nordic blonde Lorda (Melissa Moore) and the closest thing to an ally that Kat will have next to conman Alcatraz (Michael Shaner) who has all the underworld connections but whose alliances and motives are sketchy at best. The Black Brigade, a cell of revolutionary insurgents seeking to destabilize political relations between the Philippines and the US, see Kat as their latest threat. Their leader Cirio Quirino (Henry Strzalkowski) dispatches highly organized, disciplined and patient assassin with an affinity for classic arts Bontoc or Gold Tooth (Christina Portugal) to neutralize the problem. In an incredibly groan-inducing explosive finale killer Kat thwarts an assassination attempt on ambassador Franklin (Ken Metcalfe), rescues her proxy girlfriend Lorda from the Black Brigades, and manages to bring her sister's murderer to justice.

For those who thought Bloodmatch (1991) and Heatseeker (1995) were as interesting as watching paint dry, old Cirio offers ample evidence that boobs alone not a good movie make. There's hardly any complaints on that end as neither Santiago nor Angelfist waste any time in getting to that what everybody's here for. And that's where the horrible case of miscasting comes in. Melissa Moore (sometime Playboy Playmate in 1991) was, by far, the better actress. In a just world this would have been a Moore starring vehicle with Sassoon in a supporting role. Moore was the star of the Jim Wynorski boobfest Hard to Die (1990), and the insane Samurai Cop (1991). The late Cat Sassoon was horribly, tragically miscast here and while Angelfist exceeds Naked Fist (1981) both in terms of violence and nudity it never becomes more than a sum of its parts. It's one of those instances where you actively wish the lead would keep her top on for once. It almost makes you wonder why Sassoon’s plastic pair didn't get their own credit.

This has more leotards than Nightmare City (1980) and just about looks what a martial arts movie by Zalman King or Andy Sidaris would look like. If Lorda's pick-up line (“you ever had a blonde?”) rings familiar that because Andy Sidaris used it earlier and better. Angelfist is Bloodsport (1988) or Kickboxer (1989) with boobs but without talent. No wonder that Heatseeker (1995) ended up stealing some of its best scenes from this. Angelfist etches dangerously close to late night cable soft erotica with its abundance of communal shower scenes. There's obvious chemistry and mutual attraction between the Kat and Lorda characters but it never results in extensive mutual groping nor is there an equivalent of the warehouse scene from Naked Fist (1981). In retrospect Cirio H. Santiago's Naked trilogy more or less is a parallel franchise to Wong's Naked series. While Santiago's is more transparently exploitative for all the obvious reasons the law of diminishing returns struck hard and swift in both.

And this really brings us to the crux of this review: why was the world forever denied a standalone spinoff with Melissa Moore's Lorda as the central character? Even Chingmy Yau Suk-Ching was given her own (albeit cheaper) sub-franchise with Raped By an Angel (1993-1999) after the runaway success of Naked Killer (1992). Santiago specialized in everything from exploding bamboo-hut Vietnam yarns, to post-nuke Mad Max (1979) rip-offs, and topless kickboxing features. Above all, though, Cirio was the master of the female-centric action romp. His shadow looms long over the Filipino movie industry, and in recent memory only Maria (2019) has come close to recapturing that what Santiago once made an industry out of. Like The Expendables (1988) at the end of the prior decade Angelfist might not have been old Cirio's finest hour but for every dud there's a Stryker (1983), Wheels of Fire (1985), Silk (1986), or The Sisterhood (1988). Santiago never bet on one horse, and with Angelfist he clearly missed the race...

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 Chanda 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 (1993), 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.