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Plot: kickboxer avenges the death of his brother.

At one point in the mid-nineties Albert Pyun was the go-to guy for cheapo kickboxing movies. Sure, he was no Cirio H. Santiago, but who is? Santiago was the master of topless kickboxing with TNT Jackson (1974), the self-proclaimed “first erotic kung fu classicNaked Fist (1981) (with Jillian Kessner), and the relative unknown Angelfist (1993) (with Cat Sassoon and Melissa Moore). Pyun was the man behind the first sequel to the Jean-Claude Van Damme action classic Kickboxer (1989) and if there’s one thing that can be counted upon, it’s that Pyun never will let an opportunity go to waste. Before he made the cyberpunk slogfest Heatseeker (1995) (with Keith Cooke and Tina Cote) there was Bloodmatch. An expert in stretching budgets and resources (as his Nemesis series attests to) Bloodmatch was filmed back-to-back with Kickboxer 2: The Road Back (1991) and shared much of the same production crew and cast. It answers that question that has haunted Sidaris fans for years: what exactly did Hope Marie Carlton do after Savage Beach (1989) and her exit from the Andy-verse?

Well, for a while at least it looked as if hottie Hope was going to carve out a decent career as supporting actress for herself. Before her last outing with Sidaris she already had a bit part (where she showed quite a bit) in Renny Harlin’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988). She could be seen in the Huey Lewis and the News music video for ‘Give Me the Keys (And I'll Drive You Crazy)’ in 1989 as well as Ghoulies III: Ghoulies Go to College (1990) and the Roger Corman produced Slumber Party Massacre III (1990), more often than not in roles wherein some nudity was required.

To top things off Carlton also made an appearance as Stiletto in the 1994 Electronic Arts point-and-click adventure game Noctropolis. And the other big name (although that is, admittedly, very relative) is Thom Mathews. Mathews had starred in The Return of the Living Dead (1985), and Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986) but by the following decade would become an Albert Pyun regular with roles in, among others, Nemesis (1992), Heatseeker (1995), Blast (1997), and Mean Guns (1997). Michel Qissi played a small role in Bloodsport (1988) and perhaps is best known as the villain Tong Po in Kickboxer (1989). Sadly, Qissi has done little of interest since. He’d feel right at home in Ben Combes’ long-awaited Commando Ninja (2018) sequel.

Brick Bardo (Thom Mathews) plans to exact revenge on everyone involved in the disappearance (and apparent death) of his brother Wood Wilson. After chasing and subsequently torturing Davey O’Brien (Michel Qissi) on a stretch of concrete in the baking sun he learns a few things. First, Wilson was involved in illegal price fighting and this transgression led to his exile from the sport and was key to his apparent suicide.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, O’Brien (whether Davey is related to Chance or China is, unfortunately, never revealed) spills the names of the parties involved in the scheme: current middleweight champion Brent Caldwell (Dale Jacoby), kickboxer turned janitor Billy Muñoz (Benny Urquidez), fighter Mike Johnson (Thunderwolf, as Thunder Wolf), and promoter Connie Angel (Hope Marie Carlton). Bardo and his assistant Max Manduke (Marianne Taylor) travel crosscountry to pick up their targets, and if they don’t cooperate the duo simply drug, coerce (either by having Max bed them, or kidnap their families), or knock them about into doing their bidding. For the occasion the duo have rented the Las Vegas Arena to enact their own Bloodmatch.

The American martial arts movie is a strange beast. On the one hand there are the early Jean-Claude Van Damme classics who do the genre justice, and then there’s everything else. Bloodmatch, obviously, falls into the latter category but acquits itself at least partly with the presence of Benny Urquidez (who also was responsible for all the action choreography) and Dale Jacoby. The arena fights are heavily edited and artificially intensified by making ample use of fast cuts and constant repeats of the same punches and kicks. It’s the oldest trick in the book, and an effective one when used sparingly. Not so here since none (except maybe Urquidez and Jacoby) were actual fighters and preparation for the fights was probably minimal. Of the vintage Sidaris bikini babes Hope Marie Carlton was always the only who could reasonably act. She does so here too, and for once the role doesn’t require of her to get naked. Who does get naked is Marianne Taylor. Taylor bears some resemblance to Nemesis (1992) star Deborah Shelton, and Pyun doesn’t shy away from shooting her from a few very flattering angles. Like Tinto Brass, Pyun too seems to like junk in the trunk. The remainder of the cast are complete nonentities, and not worth discussing as such.

As always director of photography George Mooradian at least makes whatever Pyun shoots look good. The same goes for long-time composer Anthony Riparetti who provides a suitable score for what, for all intents and purposes, is a boring slogfest. Heatseeker (1995) and Mean Guns (1997) (both not Pyun’s finest hour either) were not only marginally more interesting visually, but they actually had a pulse. Bloodmatch was apparently shot on autopilot and none of that keen visual flair and deft action direction that made Nemesis (1992) a minor action hit is accounted for here. The screenplay is functional in its minimalism and was written by Pyun under the nom de plume of K. Hannah (an apparent portmanteau of Kitty Chalmers and Hannah Blue, two pen names old Al frequently used around this time). It’s not often that it happens but Bloodmatch makes Angelfist (1993) and Heatseeker (1995) looks like works of art in comparison. That Bloodmatch would fail as a thriller was all but a given and it makes the critical error of having stilted and slow kickboxing routines. Nobody expects the American martial arts movie to match, let alone surpass, its agile Far East counterparts – but even by lowly American standards Bloodmatch is terminally rote in every sense of the word.

Plot: mercenary happens upon conspiracy while tracking mass murderer.

Rene Perez describes Cabal as a tribute to “80s exploitation” which is just about the biggest oxymoron if there ever was one. At the dawn of the 80s the grindhouses on 42nd street were on the verge of extinction as the burdgeoning home video market swept in as a cleansing fire and the new alternative for low budget thrills. Semantics aside, Perez directed, edited, photographed, scored, and co-wrote Cabal with frequent collaborator Barry Massoni, and it’s one of his best this side of Cry Havoc (2019) and Death Kiss (2018). Eva Hamilton once again showcases that she’s the best Perez babe since Nicole Stark, Karin Brauns, Irina Levadneva, and Alanna Forte. Cabal is very much Cry Havoc (2019) with a late seventies/early eighties exploitation aesthetic. Death Kiss (2018) was an obvious tribute to Death Wish (1974). Cabal seems to be a tribute to the backwood horror and cheapo action features that were popular in the early eighties.

To say that Rene Perez has come a long way since The Snow Queen (2013) would be putting it mildly. In the last couple of years Perez has gotten far more dynamic and mobile in the way he shoots and lines up his scenes. His static scenic shots now only are part of a much wider palette and his keen eye for beautiful landscapes hasn’t dulled. When conceptualizing Cabal he probably looked towards bonafide American classics as Bloodeaters (1980), The Hills Have Eyes (1977), I Drink Your Blood (1970), and Raw Force (1982). As for the government conspiracy angle Coma (1978), Parts: The Clonus Horror (1979), or Eyes Behind the Stars (1978) are likely inspirations. Honestly, as much as we can get behind Cabal on mere principle as it obviously has it heart in the right place, it just so happens to be confused about what exactly it wants to be. Cabal is four movies mangled into one – it isn’t Commando Ninja (2018) or anything.

One day military contractor Dragonfly (John Ozuna) makes his acquaintance with Elizabeth (Eva Hamilton) in a local wateringhole. Elizabeth has been investigating the disappearance of a number of nubile women in the California Redwood forests. She believes that the women are brought there by a band of human traffickers who harvest their organs for interested third-parties. To get to said organs and body parts they let the women loose in the woodlands where Sallos (Tony Jackson) dwells. Sallos is a deranged homicidal maniac sporting a mask and a barbwired axe with a known affinity for bodily dismemberment and his quick, brutal methods of execution. After negotiating terms of the contract Dragonfly sets out to find Sallos and any survivors.

It doesn’t take long before Dragonfly is able to locate Sallos. When he finds remains of other girls that went missing he happens upon a massive conspiracy involving the local elite with ties going to the highest echelons of government, the corporate world, and mass media. It seems that Dr. Bieger (Joseph Camilleri), his media magnate girlfriend Kathleen (Linda Bott), their mutual associate and head of operations Sloan (Keely Dervin) and corporate strongwoman Thea (Alexandra Fabbri, as Alex Fabbri) are part of a organ harvest ring with the help of Dr. Kelly (Denise Poole) at the local hospital. Their goal is obtain eternal youth and vitality which will allow them to further strengthen and consolidate their political – and economical influence to bend the powers that be to their will. Now the cabal has set their eye on a waitress (Candace Cannon) and aspiring model Priss (Rebecca Tarabocchia). Things take a turn for the personal when Elizabeth is ambushed by para-military forces and finds herself at the mercy of Sallos.

Whereas Death Kiss (2018) was blatant and obvious in what it imitated Cabal is far less so. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what Cabal is supposed to pay homage to outside of “80s exploitation” - and that’s enough of a blanket term to be practically meaningless. With Cabal Rene has thrown together a bunch of different popular 80s fads without bothering too much, or at all, whether they mesh together, or not. First and foremost, Cabal is an action movie – complete with explosive shoot-outs, martial arts, and bloodspatters. Second, it’s a backwood horror about a deranged masked killer stalking, hacking, and killing a bunch of pretty girls in a scenic woodland locale. Third, it’s a police thriller wherein a military contractor is hired by a private individual to track down a bunch of missing persons. Fourth, and finally, it’s conspiracy thriller about the wealthy and politically connected elite operating a clandestine organ harvest ring out of a hospital to attain the closest thing to immortality. Most of the time, however, Cabal feels like Cry Havoc (2019) and Death Kiss (2018) stitched together.

The new blood is, admittedly, a mixed bag. Tony Jackson replaces J.D. Angstadt as the prerequisite mute serial killer. Jackson’s performance is minimalist and brute, near identical to Angstadt in that regard. Angstadt, of course, modeled his role after Charlie Glackin. John Ozuna will make you pine for Robert Kovacs, David Reinprecht, and Robert Amstler. The girls? Well, there’s not really a whole to say about them. Rebecca Tarabocchia, Clementine Hetherington, and Kimberly Molina all do what girls like this in Perez features always do: they smile, take their top off, wimper, and die. Neither of them leaves much of an impression the way Spring Inés Peña, Sierra Sherbundy, Raven Lexy, Stormi Maya, or Elonda Seawood did. Melody Vaughan plays the kind of maternal, protective role that Malorie Glavan usually does. Only Denise Poole and Candace Cannon manage to do something with what little they are given. As for the oldtimers: Linda Bott, and Joseph Camilleri will make you wish Marilyn Robrahn, Richard Tyson or John J. Welsh were still around. Bott and Camilleri would feel right at home in the next Neil Breen spectacular. Illuminating every scene she’s in (and acting better than the majority of the cast, combined) is Eva Hamilton. Miss Hamilton is just about the best thing in Cabal.

For reasons inexplicable Perez has chosen a very desaturated color scheme. The lush vibrant colors of, say, Sleeping Beauty (2014) are conspicuous only by their absence. Sallos is pretty much a nonentity compared to Prisoner AYO-886 / Havoc and instead of a full-blown The Last House on the Left (1972) madmen-on-the-loose flick Cabal is, for the most part, a fairly conventional action movie with some horror dressings. Cabal would probably have benefitted from cutting Sallos altogether as the Neil Breen-like conspiracy is far more interesting than a bunch of scantily clad babes escaping from another axe-wielding masked maniac. Sallos can in no shape or form compete with Rene’s greatest creation Prisoner AYO-886 / Havoc and Cabal attests to that. Sallos has no real reason being in Cabal other then to provide a few gory kills, and he has no other function besides that.

The kidnapping and stalking could just as easy been done by the military personnel and there would be no notable narrative difference. The trailer is misleading in that it banks on the presence of Sallos so much. He’s just a peon. Here’s an idea for the next Playing with Dolls episode: an apocalyptic duel between Havoc and Sallos in the California Redwoods devised by The Watcher, with a bunch of pretty people acting as either cannon fodder or live bait. The score is a stroll down to memory lane with lots of ambient synths and piano. For that grimy grindhouse feel the digital film stock is artificially aged through the use of lines, grains, and speckles of dirt. It feels awfully 70s for an 80s throwback. The action direction and fight choreography from John Ozuna is sort of functional but one-dimensional – and has nothing on Hong Kong. Perhaps Perez should keep Ozuna as a consultant and employ Antony Cinturino, Danielle C. Ryan, or Cecily Fay.

Now that Rene is on an 80s revivalist binge let us pitch another idea. How about that long overdue LETHAL Ladies imitation we all know he has been pining to make? He could call it B.U.S.T. (or Branch of Unity, Strategy & Tactics. We have given this some thought, you see) and have the most beloved Perez babes face off against his usual array of stuntmen and bodybuilders. If anything over the years Rene has made some stellar casting choices that wouldn’t feel out of place in a vintage Andy Sidaris spycaper. Imagine what Perez could do with a stretch of beach, palm trees, a warm color palette and a female ensemble cast in pastel-colored bikinis wielding oversized guns and candy-colored cocktails. Who wouldn’t want to see Eva Hamilton, Spring Inés Peña, Omnia Bixler, Alanna Forte (or Elonda Seawood), Karin Brauns (or Wilma Elles), and Aurelia Scheppers (or Irina Levadneva) duke it out in an explosive battle against crimelord Richard Tyson, or Daniel Baldwin and their bevy of gun-wielding beautiful henchettes? What better opportunity than to have Stormi Maya, Raven Lexy, and Gemma Donato cameo? It would the ideal excuse to hire Breen babes Jennifer Autry, or Victoria Viveiros, low budget starlets like Schuylar Craig, Lisa Palenica, Alejandra Morin, Ginny You, and Tracey Birdsall or genuine talent like Cristine Reyes, Nicole Bilderback, Samantha Robinson or Nicola Posener. Andy made 12 of these things, and Rene (so far) has none. How’s that possible? We’d even help brainstorm a storyline outline with possible setpieces and locations, if that’s what it takes to get the ball rolling.

For most of its duration Cabal feels like a repurposed Playing with Dolls script. Over the years Rene has abundantly proven that he knows how to shoot an exciting action scene on a low budget. Death Kiss (2018) evinced that better than anything. Cabal might not be the next big Perez caper but it has its heart in the right place. The thing is that Cabal has a bit too much going on at any point and it lacks the focus of Death Kiss (2018). This would have worked wonders as a madmen-on-the-loose horror flick in tradition of The Last House on the Left (1972), and The Hills Have Eyes (1977) or as a martial arts action movie in vein of Raw Force (1982). That Cabal starts out as an action movie only to turn into a backwood horror, and then to contort itself into a conspiracy thriller is what ultimately works to its detriment. It never settles on a specific tone nor direction. It’s everything at once, and none of the above. And that’s a shame. Especially when you have somebody as versatile Eva Hamilton at your disposal. Cabal does everything we have come to expect of a Perez feature – and while it may not surpass them, we can’t shake the impression that this could have been so much more. The trailer certainly looked promising. Perhaps a second go at Cabal might birth what this always should have been.