The Perfect Weapon


Kino Lorber;
$24.95 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘R’ for martial arts violence and for some language.
Stars Jeff Speakman, Mako, James Hong, Professor Toru Tanaka, Mariska Hargitay, John Dye, Dante Basco, Seth Sakai, Beau Starr, Clyde Kusatsu, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa.

Is there a genre that relies more heavily on its star’s gross motor skills than martial arts films? As an actor, Jeff Speakman makes a fine physical specimen capable of taking down 10 opponents in as many seconds, when the script calls for it. Referred to as “Terminator” by one of his admirers, Speakman is closer in appearance to Clint Eastwood (in his orangutan period) than he is pumped-up Arnold. Of the actor’s 23 performances credited on IMDB, I’ve seen two: a minor part in Slaughterhouse Rock — a grade z vanity piece produced and directed by the son of a noted Chicago car salesman — and now the far-from-perfect 1991 martial arts opus The Perfect Weapon.

My cinematic coming of age coincided with the sudden rise in popularity of chop-socky, a catch-all heading concocted by Variety to describe the flood of Asian action films that swept up on American shores in the wake of the Shaw Brothers’ King Boxer. A surprise box office smash of 1973, Five Fingers of Death, as it was retitled for American audiences, evokes a bygone era when Hong Kong cinema was first introduced to Western audiences, sparking a cultural phenomenon that captivated fans worldwide. There was definitely an audience for kung fu movies that, for better or worse, I did not belong to. At a time when Scorsese, Eastwood, Coppola, Malick, Bogdanovich, Tavernier, Carpenter, Woody, Elaine May and so many more were all making their presence known, who had time for atrociously-dubbed, largely plotless, and crudely made action pictures that emphasized a Rockettes kick-line approach to fighting?

The only kung fu film I experienced first run in a theater was something called The Super Stooges vs. the Wonder Women. In spite of one epically awful sequence — rather than kickboxing his way to safety, the good guy escapes a post-dinner confrontation by belching back the opposition — nothing about the genre appealed to me. Believe it or don’t, with the exception of “The Green Hornet,” a series I watched strictly based on the crossover connection to its sister show, “Batman,” I had never seen a Bruce Lee action film until COVID made me a prisoner of my home theater. The fight scenes are spectacular, but when it comes to telling what little stories there are, the handful of films Lee appeared in following “The Green Hornet” are so badly put together they’re enlightening. 

Jeff Sanders (Speakman) was a troubled teen whose father enrolled him in Kenpo classes to find positive ways to channel his son’s killer instincts. According to the narration. Kenpo is a 2,000-year0old tradition that combines ancient fighting techniques and modern scientific principles. Released in the wake of two paragons of martial arts refinement — Jackie Chan’s exhilarating directorial debut and Sam Firstenberg’s ebullient series of ninja pictures for Cannon Films — Paramount was banking on a bright future for Speakman. Alas, two planned sequels never came to pass,

Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign sabotaged more plots than Will Hays. During Mommy’s reign, if a character in reel one snorted a rail or puffed a joint, they’d be jailed and/or dead by reel five. So much for suspension of disbelief. This time, the drug in question isn’t heroin or coke. For a change it’s methamphetamine, a narcotic as topical as today’s headlines. Sanders overhears a drug dealer putting the muscle on his mentor, Kim (Mako), insisting that he allow the Korean mafia to use his antique shop as a front. What kind of a hitman is going to announce his intentions while his mark is talking on the phone? He might just as well have picked up the extension.

Everything but the fighting reeks of formula, from an admiring young sidekick to an estranged brother who’s a cop, all that’s missing is an obligatory romance. According to Wikipedia, so as not to get in the way of the ‘R’ rated action, the lovey-dovey interplay between Speakman and Mariska Hargitay was left on the cutting room floor. As if looking to add an air of legitimacy to the otherwise Western proceedings, the presence of two legendary Hong Kong superstars are de rigueur. Generally cast as the heavy, Mako plays the sympathetic victim while the generally kindly James Hong goes against type as the mob boss. The goon to top is Tanaka (Professor Toru Tanaka) a giant of a man who uses his own jaws of life to extricate himself from a wreck.

Martial arts films enshrine the what over the how; style and logic are okay so long as they don’t get in the way of the kicking. After all, an audience composed largely of adolescent boys (of all ages) isn’t one to stop and savor composition and camera placement.

Bonus Features include audio commentary by director Mark DiSalle and action film historian Mike Leeder, a 30-minute interview with Jeff Speakman, and nine minutes of deleted and extended scenes.


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