Plot: martial arts instructor investigates the disappearance of her brother.
That Cirio H. Santiago would try his hand at blaxploitation should surprise no one. He after all was the man behind Terror Is A Man (1959), as well as the first partially colored Filipino gothic horror with The Blood Drinkers (1964) and its sequel Blood Of the Vampires (1966) (both with Amalia Fuentes). By the mid-seventies two things were big in drive-ins across America and grindhouses on New York’s 42nd street: blaxploitation and martial arts imports from the Far East. Santiago commenced establishing a footing in North America by co-producing The Big Doll House (1971), The Big Bird Cage (1972), and The Hot Box (1972) with and for Roger Corman. That in turn would give him the leverage to launch his own features through Corman’s distribution network. Before Naked Fist (1981) and Angelfist (1993) there was Jean Bell and TNT Jackson, or the first of Santiago’s loose trilogy of topless kickboxing movies. Everything has a beginning, and Cirio H. Santiago kicked open all the doors with mad energy.
Never one not to be with the times TNT Jackson (released back home as Dynamite Wong and TNT Jackson and, understandably, abbreviated for the international market) is the perfect response to Hong Kong martial arts capers as The Tournament (1974) (with Angela Mao Ying) and Sister Street Fighter (1974) (with Etsuko Shihomi). Santiago would often play up his stars with (fabricated and very much non-existent) martial arts championship titles, and with the granddaddy of them all it’s no different. That Santiago teamed up with Roger Corman for North American distribution was a deal made in exploitation heaven. No wonder then that TNT Jackson has stood the test of time. By comparison Naked Fist (1981) and Angelfist (1993) are more obscure. Santiago always had a talent for female-centric action and while Jean Bell hardly was a full-blooded action star she’s given plenty of opportunity to show off her chops.
Martial arts instructor Diana Jackson (Jean Bell, as Jeanne Bell) has traveled to Hong Kong to investigate the mysterious disappearance of her brother Stag. Landing in one of the seedier districts Jackson is almost immediately accosted by a bunch of street thugs. Jackson is able to hold her own but is picked up by Elaine (Pat Anderson) who just happens to be passing with her limo. Back in the city Diana seeks out the Joe’s Haven pub. There she quickly befriends retired martial arts instructor Joe (Augusto Valdes Pangan Sr., as Chiquito) and learns that her brother had fallen foul with the local drug cartel run by the American Sid (Ken Metcalfe, as Ken Metcalf). Diana crosses paths with Charlie (Stan Shaw) and sparks fly between the two. Ming (Joe Mari Avellana) warns Sid of the obvious danger Diana poses to their operation, especially now that Charlie’s enchanted with her. Elaine expresses her reservations about the way recent shipments have been handled. As Diana continues her investigation and deliveries are intercepted a senior cartel partner (Joonee Gamboa, as John Gamble) decides Jackson’s too much of a threat, and has his goons intercept her. Meanwhile Elaine reveals that she’s a deep undercover narcotics operative and that Sid ordered Charlie to kill Stag. Upon learning that the man she has been sleeping with is responsible for her brother’s senseless slaying TNT is forced to live up to her nickname and explodes in a blind rage…
At a brisk 72 minutes TNT Jackson does not have the luxury of fucking around, and it doesn’t. The plot, minimal as it is, is feeble even by lowly Santiago standards. The action choreography is laughable and bad and laughably bad at that. Nobody was expecting TNT Jackson to measure itself with Hong Kong or the average Robert Clouse epic, but even Death Promise (1977) had better action choreography. The routines are slow and brawlish with constant dancing around and no sense of pace, rhythm, or gravitas. No amount of rapid-fire editing can hide that Jean Bell had no background in martial arts. There were no less than 4 (!!) martial arts instructors on hand during production, but not one among them could apparently decently choreograph a single fight. Stan Shaw acquits himself with well enough but he was no Jim Kelly or Jim Brown, to say the least. The screenplay was a co-written by Santiago regular Ken Metcalfe and Richard Miller. Who’s Miller, you wonder? He was the gunshop owner in The Terminator (1984). Where Naked Fist (1981) and Angelfist (1993) took their time to tie up loose ends, TNT Jackson doesn’t bother with such trivialities, or with much else for that matter.
The star (inasmuch as such a thing is possible with Santiago) was Playboy Playmate of the Month (October, 1969) Jean Bell. Bell worked with everybody from Martin Scorcese to Terence Young and Lee Frost and shared the screen with blaxploitation superstars as Jim Kelly, Jim Brown, Fred Williamson, and D’Urville Martin. She can be seen in Mean Streets (1973) and The Klansman (1974) as well as blaxploitation crime/martial arts drive-in romps as Cleopatra Jones (1973), Policewomen (1974), Three the Hard Way (1974), The Muthers (1976), and Disco 9000 (1977). Bell was no Pam Grier or Tamara Dobson but she was able to hold her own well enough regardless. Pat Anderson was in Bonnie's Kids (1972). Ken Metcalfe and Joe Mari Avellana were Santiago regulars. Metcalfe frequently worked with Eddie Romero and Bobby A. Suarez. He can be seen in Naked Fist (1981), Enter the Ninja (1981), Stryker (1983), Savage Justice (1988), and Angelfist (1993). Avellana was, among many others, in Wheels of Fire (1985), Silk (1986), and Silk II (1989). In short, there’s a lot of familiar faces here and for a Filipino production this looks decidedly American. Blaxploitation was the ticket and Santiago managed to capture the decade’s grindhouse drive-in zeitgeist. TNT Jackson is as lean, mean, and grimy as they come – and it never makes any excuses for what it is.
While Europe was mesmerized by the Italian gothic horror revival, the giallo explosion, Spanish fantaterrors, and Scandinavian sexploitation America experienced sweeping societal changes in the economic recession and collapse following the postwar boom. Social progressive values that sprung up in the previous decade grew stronger. Civil rights, women’s liberation, environmentalism, and anti-war protests erupted everywhere. No wonder then that urban revenge tales and underdog vigilante heroes became fixtures in cinema, mainstream and otherwise. On the one hand there were the biker counterculture flicks following Easy Rider (1969), LSD cinema in the wake of The Trip (1967), and gritty actioners on the model of either Dirty Harry (1971) or Death Wish (1974). The black community had their own cinematic heroes in the form of Melvin Van Peebles in Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971), Richard Roundtree as Shaft (1971), and Pam Grier as Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974). Bruce Lee had brought kung fu to North America with Enter the Dragon (1973) and following his untimely death Hong Kong imports were everywhere. Downtrodden and impoverished commoners fighting back against feudal oppressors was something that resonated across cultures. Martial arts was the language of the oppressed and disenfranchised demographics/communities (typically either African-American or Latino) embraced it wholeheartedly. In other words, TNT Jackson benefitted tremendously from the decade’s social upheaval and, retroactively, is very much a product of its time.
Seeing as how TNT Jackson almost immediately followed Foxy Brown (1974) there’s a degree of overlap between the two, intentional or otherwise. As said earlier, Bell was no Pam Grier or Tamara Dobson yet thankfully TNT Jackson is a cut above, say, the average Serafim Karalexis chop sockey joint or poverty row revenge action as Road Of Death (1973). It speaks to the viability of a concept that Cirio H. Santiago would return to the same well over the ensuing decades and twice with Caucasian women in the starring roles. Were Jillian Kesner and Catya Sassoon better actresses? That’s debatable. Like Bell, Kesner was an exploitation veteran and Sassoon was famous mostly thanks due to her hair stylist/business tycoon father. Of the three Kesner was the better fighter and Bell could genuinely act. The talents (while considerable) of the late Sassoon lay elsewhere, fighting and acting generally not being among them. Quentin Tarantino kinda-sorta paid tribute to it with his Kill Bill (2003-2004) (in truth more of a Hong Kong valentine) and it certainly was ripe for the exploiting. Which raises the only real question left: when is Rene Perez going to remake this with Stormi Maya, Alanna Forte, or Elonda Seawood?