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Plot: kickboxer is coerced into partaking in clandestine tournament

It's entirely within the realm of possibly that in 1995 Albert Pyun was spreading himself a bit thin, creatively. Not only did he direct the first Nemesis (1992) sequel Nemesis 2: Nebula, around the same time he shot three films on location in the Philippines. In a bout of creative economics he lensed the Bond imitation Spitfire, the pseudo-realistic thriller Hong Kong ’97 (1994) and the the Christopher Borkgren written cyberpunk martial arts romp Heatseeker. Despite a mildly promising premise, a relative nobody in the starring role, and a swath of Pyun regulars in tow Heatseeker looks exactly as lethargic and turgid as it sounds. It certainly won’t bother explaining why it is called Heatseeker. If the wretched Bloodmatch (1991) had anything going for it, it was Andy Sidaris babe Hope Marie Carlton. Heatseeker has to content itself with sometime Pyun muse Tina Cote.

In the far-flung future present of 2019 Sianon Corporation marketing executive Tsiu Tung (Norbert Weisser), who isn’t Asian despite his name, has devised the ultimate scheme for dominating the fledging international cybernetics market. In a clandestine, globally broadcast, mixed martial arts tournament rival corporations will be able to present their sponsored fighters, and the eventual winner, and its parent company, will monopolize the cybernetics market. In an unexpected turn of events Chance O’Brien (Keith Cooke), the last fully human competitor and one who is vocal in his condemnation of cybernetics, defeats Sianon grand champion Xao (Gary Daniels) in the ring. To ensure victory for the hosting house Sianon decks out their prize fighter with in-house enhancements in a sequence looking like a skid row re-enactment of the assembly scenes in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991).

At the post-match press conference O’Brien and his fiancée/manager Jo (Tina Cote, as Tina Coté) announce their engagement, and they are soon beset by Tung with his price fighter in attendance. Refusing to bend knee to the interests of corporate overlords O’Brien and Jo head off to Paris, France for a short romantic getaway. Jo is abducted by Tung’s goons and implanted with a mind control chip, the workings of which will, of course, never be explained. Under aegis of Tung she is forced to train Sianon prize fighter Xao under the threat of bodily harm. To make matters worse, Jo is forced upon Xao because Tang apparently mistakes physical affection for love, neither of which Jo is prepared or willing to give. Xao himself doesn’t seem comfortable with the arrangement, and will often look dismayed – or that may just be Daniels’ complete inability to emote combined with the cold looking azure contacts he is forced to wear. To get O’Brien to do his bidding Tung threatens to kill Jo if he doesn’t follow his plan. How killing Jo is supposed to be beneficial to Xao’s training regiment is, of course, conveniently glossed over. Neither does Tung seem to have a contingency plan in place in case O’Brien doesn’t want to partake in the clandestine tournament, and is prepared to sacrifice Jo to facilitate his escape.

In tradition of Bloodsport (1988) and Kickboxer (1989) – wherein Jean-Claude van Damme is as oiled up and flexible as Cooke is here - the only way to avenge the killing/taking of one’s sibling or paramour is by partaking in an underground martial arts tournament, or a full-contact kumite. Checking in at his hotel in New Manila a helpful receptionist (Hazel Huelves) points him to the right direction to enroll in the tournament. The tournament is, to avoid all possible confusion, simply called The Tournament. Supposedly because The Arena, Kubate, or Mortal Kombat were already taken. As genre convention dictates upon arriving in the Filipino capital of New Manila, O’Brien has barely left the plane or he is accosted by street thugs, and robbed of both his clothing and whatever possessions he brought along - an old Filipino action movie convention that also could be found in the Cirio H. Santiago topless kung fu classics TNT Jackson (1974), Naked Fist (1981) and Angelfist (1993). It is here at O’Brien runs into Bradford (Thom Mathews), a corporate executive acting as his own sponsor and quite literally defending his firm in the ring. Bradford is supposed to act has a buddy to O’Brien, but nothing substantial is made of it. A subplot wherein Tung coerces Bradford to sell O’Brien down the river is brought up, but has no visible effect on the main plot.

As Chance works his way through the early part of The Tournament he attracts the attention of the Zanac Corporation, who decide to sponsor him. Corporate assistant Liu (Yau Chau-Yuet or Selena Mangharan, as Selena Mangh), who everybody refers to as “Lou”, makes sure O’Brien remains properly motivated. Eventually Chance faces reigning champion Xao, who multiple characters lovingly call “a tin man”, an obvious reference the Wonderful Wizard of Oz novel, who despite being almost completely rebuilt from cybernetic components still doesn’t reach his full potential as a fighter. Xao, like LL Cool J before him, needs love to unlock his true power as a cybernetic combatant. When O’Brien defeats Xao in the ring a second time, supposedly due to the fact that O’Brien is empowered by love, the latter sacrifices himself by taking a bullet meant for Jo. O’Brien, dimwitted as always, walks away from the situation oblivious to Xao’s rather blatant and obvious heroic self-sacrifice.

Unlike the vastly superior Mortal Kombat (1995) or the Jean-Claude van Damme box office bomb Street Fighter (1994), Heatseeker hardly, if ever, manages to deliver on its promise. The mildly interesting premise, the stylized look, and even the fights come across as overly stilted and daft. The cybernetic implants and upgrades are heavily emphasized in the mess of a screenplay but it’s impossible to tell which combatants are enhanced and which are not. Neither do said implants seem to give any of the more enhanced combatants any strategic upperhand or special skills. One of the bigger, and more important, problems for Heatseeker is the unequivocally flat and unenergetic action choreography. The fights universally and uniformly are clunky, slow, and lack in athleticism, rhythm, and grace.

If this had been a Hong Kong production at least the fights would have been good. Not so here. Further complicating matters is that there's a complete absence of interesting camera angles, every scene is shot in soft focus, and the fights are easily the most boring aspect of the production. A great deal is made of Heatseeker being about a full-contact kumite yet it's practically bloodless and the injuries of the cybernetic combatants are shown with small, budget-efficient exposing of wiring and circuitry embedded in human flesh. Each cybernetic combatant hits the canvas with the expected eruption of sparks, vapors of smoke, and light electronic buzzing. It’s a sad day for a budget-deficient martial arts movie when the referee (Mary Courtney) becomes the only aspect of a fight worth paying attention to.

Somewhere in Heatseeker there’s a worthwhile little martial arts movie, or a passable character study of cybernetic enhanced martial artists in search and contemplation of the nature of humanity, and their loss thereof - or a protest against the corporization and mass commercialization of popular sports entertainment. All of which director Albert Pyun, or most likely screenwriter Christopher Borkgren, has no interest in exploring to any degree. It’s interesting that two of Pyun’s more worthy offerings were far more grounded in reality than his usual dystopian cyberpunk vehicles. Hong Kong ’97 benefitted from having two lead stars (Robert Patrick and Ming-Na Wen) that could actually act, and Spitfire was a popcorn spy/adventure flick in the truest sense of the word. That Heatseeker, much more in Pyun’s comfort zone than anything else that year, is so immensely, unforgivingly stale that it might as well signal that Pyun was spreading himself a tad too thin creatively that year. Heatseeker makes one long for the glorious incompetence of Mortal Kombat: Annihilation.

We have a long history with Britain’s self-proclaimed barbarian metal kings Bal-Sagoth. Our introduction to the world of Bal-Sagoth came with their 1996 magnus opus “Starfire Burning upon the Ice-Veiled Throne of Ultima Thule” and we voraciously anticipated and consumed every of their subsequent albums. No other band, before or since, has combined ancient history/mythology, pulp (science fiction) literature, horror, and raging primitive death/black metal in such a engrossing and truly cinematic fashion. Bal-Sagoth was the purest escapism, a phantasmagorical world of heroes and magic, a dream to get lost in. To say that we worship Bal-Sagoth in a godly way wouldn’t be far from the truth. Whether it was the more traditional death metal of their underappreciated debut “A Black Moon Broods Over Lemuria” or the transitional “Battle Magic” and their more power metal influenced trio of albums on Nuclear Blast Records, a new Bal-Sagoth record was always an event and cause for celebration. In 2006 the self-produced “The Chthonic Chronicles” was released and the band descended into an extended hiatus. After nearly twenty years the Bal-Sagoth saga had apparently ended.

Now, 13 years after “The Chthonic Chronicles”, erstwhile Bal-Sagoth alumni Jonny (keyboards, synthesizers, piano) and Chris Maudling (lead & rhythm guitars) return to the fray with the equally Robert E. Howard inspired Kull. Kull was the protagonist of Howard’s 1967 short story Exile of Atlantis and a warrior-king from the Thurian Age. Kull was formed in Yorkshire, England in 2012 and now seven years later debuts on Black Lion Records without so much as having formally demoed in any capacity. It’s rather evident that “Exile” was conceived as a potential Bal-Sagoth effort. All the known Maudling signatures are accounted for and it very much is structured as a typical Bal-Sagoth album. Joining the Maudlin brothers are fellow Bal-Sagoth alumni Alistair MacLatchy (bass guitar) and Paul Jackson (drums). Bal-Sagoth had the benefit of having Byron A. Roberts, the creative force behind the band’s elaborate 6-album high fantasy concept and a supremely gifted vocalist in his own right. Kull is Bal-Sagoth in all but name, except without Roberts and with Tarkan Alp in his stead. Alp, should there be any lingering doubts, sounds like an understudy of Roberts – and a good one at that. Longtime devotees will immediately recognize the differences as well as the similarities between the two. This is not the master, obviously, but Alp clearly is a strong surrogate.

For those who know how and where to listen “Exile” will sound instantly familiar as the Maudling brothers haven't changed their formula since "The Chthonic Chronicles" in 2006. ‘Imperial Dawn’ is a cinematic introduction in the post-1996 Bal-Sagoth tradition. ‘Set-Nakt-Heh’ has a few riffs and blaring horns that sound as if they were lifted from ‘The Empyreal Lexicon’. It’s strange hearing the signature triumphant melody that typically is to be found during the latter stages of the second half of a Bal-Sagoth record in the opening track. The feast of familiarity continues with ‘Vow Of the Exiled’ as it almost verbatim copies the introductory riff schemes from ‘The Voyagers Beneath the Mare Imbrium’ before effectively retreading ‘Of Carnage and A Gathering Of the Wolves’ territory. ‘A Summoning to War’ very much sounds as lost chapter in the saga of gentleman-adventurer Doctor Ignatius Stone, the central character in “Atlantis Ascendant”. ‘Hordes Ride’ very much recalls something as ‘Draconis Albionensis’ and even has a few vocal patterns that sound as if it was meant as a continuation or follow-up to that track.

‘An Ensign Consigned’ is a busier and overall more aggressive cut that recalls ‘The Scourge of the Fourth Celestial Host'. ‘Pax Imperialis’ is a recombinant of ‘Callisto Rising’ and ‘Behold, the Armies of War Descend Screaming from the Heavens!’ and cements the ties “Exile” has with the fourth Bal-Sagoth record “The Power Cosmic”. ‘By Lucifer’s Crown’ opens with primal riffing not heard since the days of “A Black Moon Broods Over Lemuria” or at least ‘Star-Maps of the Ancient Cosmographers’ from “Atlantis Ascendant”. ‘Of Stone and Tears’ sounds like ‘In Search of the Lost Cities of Antarctica’ and even has a similar ending synth effect. ‘Aeolian Supremacy’ sounds like the epic conclusion to the ‘The Splendour of a Thousand Swords Gleaming Beneath the Blazon of the Hyperborean Empire’ saga whereas ‘Of Setting Suns and Rising Moon’ is the same kind of blast-heavy closer as ‘The Thirteen Cryptical Prophecies of Mu’. Why ‘Aeolian Supremacy’ and ‘Of Setting Suns and Rising Moon’ weren’t switched is a question for the ages. The closing 1:50 of the former is the ‘Valley of Silent Paths’ that should have concluded the record.

“Exile” is closest to “A Black Moon Broods Over Lemuria” in terms of structure while musically it forges onward with the direction of “Battle Magic” and the later Bal-Sagoth albums. There are a few puzzling choices along the way. ‘Of Setting Suns and Rising Moon’ is a stellar closing track by itself but clashes with the serene ending of ‘Aeolian Supremacy’. It’s almost as if the Maudling brothers had written two Bal-Sagoth closing songs and decided to put them back to back instead of using one here and the second on the follow-up to “Exile”. It’s more than confusing to hear Kull end its album twice in a row. At a gargantuan 55 minutes “Exile” is as long as “A Black Moon Broods Over Lemuria”, “Starfire Burning upon the Ice-Veiled Throne of Ultima Thule” and “Battle Magic” but unlike the latter two foregoes the expected mid-album synth instrumental and the concluding atmospheric mood-piece. “Exile” would perhaps have benefitted from trimming a good ten minutes (cutting ‘Hordes Ride’ and ‘By Lucifer’s Crown’ would amount to as much) and with the addition of a two/three-minute instrumental in vein of ‘At the Altar Of the Dreaming Gods’ or ‘Six Keys to the Onyx Pyramid’. That “Exile” doesn’t end with the prerequiste synth epilogue slightly dampens the experience of this being a repurposed Bal-Sagoth album, but then again the album ends TWICE. Once with ‘Aeolian Supremacy’ (that should have ended the album)… and then again.

Where Kull falls a bit short (well, that would being charitable, at the very least) of its ambitious forebear is in overall presentation. Bal-Sagoth had some truly spectacular artwork that frequently bordered on that of a paperback novel or an old-fashioned movie poster from the sixties through eighties. Whether it was Joe Petagno’s horror-infused snowbound vista of a mighty warrior on “Starfire Burning upon the Ice-Veiled Throne of Ultima Thule”, the space battle and gleaming armor-clad warlords from “The Power Cosmic”, or the grand collage canvas from “Atlantis Ascendant” (both from Martin Hanford) a Bal-Sagoth record always stood out from the pack. Kull does…. less so. “Exile” is rather drab-looking. What Kull misses here is a colorful and heroic canvas from (preferably) Martin Hanford or somebody similar as Jean-Pascal Fournier, Boris Vallejo, Julie Bell, or Nick Keller. We’d even settle for something from Ryan Barger, Dušan Marković, or Velio Josto. Týr, Leaves’ Eyes, Theocracy, and Symphony X all had far superior marine album artworks. Considering their legacy this is more than a little disappointing. Even Belgian Bal-Sagoth imitators Dagorlad had better artwork on their very few releases.

Things fare better on the production end. We’ll never be fans of the Maudling brothers’ Wayland’s Forge Studio and we sort of miss Bal-Sagoth (or in this case, Kull) being jointly or partially produced by Academy Studios and producer Mags. The production (somewhere between “The Power Cosmic” and “The Chthonic Chronicles”, in our estimation) and the mastering from Maor Appelbaum is good enough for the type record that this is. But “Exile” more than anything else misses that full-bodied, weighty, and bass-centric production work that made fairly recent records as, "Lynx", “Axis Mundi”, “The Passage Of Existence”, “Kingdoms Disdained”, "Apokalupsis" and “Sociopathic Constructs” so completely devastating and commanding in their concrete heaviness. “Exile”for the lack of a better term sounds overly digital and, well, a bit flat, to be honest. There are certain expectations that come with carrying on the Bal-Sagoth legacy (even if it is indirectly as is the case here) and Kull isn’t able to fully meet them, as of yet. Hopefully the Maudling brothers will have ironed out the production kinks by the next record.

It’s good having three-quarters of Bal-Sagoth back in the form of Kull. “Exile” is the Bal-Sagoth record that the world should have gotten after “The Chthonic Chronicles”. Mayhap the Maudling brothers will reunite with Byron Roberts one day and restore their most enduring constellation to its rightful former glory. For the time being that seems, sadly, not to be a situation that is likely to transpire. More unbelievable (or perhaps not) is that nor Nuclear Blast nor former label Cacophonous Records showed interest in “Exile”. From Nuclear Blast’s perspective it’s understandable in terms of simple economics: Bal-Sagoth was a niche band and never shifted a great deal of units. That the resurrected Cacophonous Records showed no interest in contracting one of their famous contractees from their previous incarnation is, frankly, a bit disconcerting. Whatever the case: it’s good having Bal-Sagoth back under the guise of Kull. Hopefully it won’t take another 13 years for them to produce a follow-up to “Exile”. The patience of Bal-Sagoth fans the world over has been stretched to the absolute limit over the last decade-plus. As devoted Bal-Sagoth acolytes used to say, Blodu ok Jarna!