Death Cage (Robert Tai, 1988)

Death Cage reminded me a lot of Soul of Chiba (Yukio Noda, 1977) in one particular way: it’s set in Thailand with a totally not Thai cast. It also reminded me of a bunch of other movies, like Mortal Kombat (Paul Anderson, 1995) and Bloodfight (Shuji Goto, 1988), as well as the more recent Shamo (Soi Cheang, 2007). It reminds me of the former two mostly because it was marketed internationally on home video as a sequel to each. One assumes the Mortal Kombat connection is because Robin Shou plays the lead in both films, and home video releases of martial arts movies have never been wholly ethical when it comes to marketing and presentation, a problem that persists to this day, regardless of the size or prestige of the publisher in question. The Bloodfight connection is remarkably tenuous, given that the only similarity between the two is pro-fighting aspect. To be honest, Shamo just plain feels like a throwback to movies like this, which is why I kinda liked it.
Death Cage is a Robert Tai directed (some sources say co-directed with Chai Man Sam) Mafia vs. Ninja (Robert Tai, 1985) and Shaolin Vs Ninja (Robert Tai, 1983). This should be some clue as to what you can expect from Death Cage.
co-production between Lan Tien Motion Picture Co. Ltd. and Golden Sun Film (H.K.) Co. Golden Sun was the producer or distributor for a number of earlier projects involving Robert Tai, such as

Again, the movie is set in Thailand, and it opens with an in-ring fight between the fighters from the Wai Chai gym and Kent’s Gym (yes, that’s the proper name). The Kent’s Gym fighters win nine matches (the first eight happen before the title scroll), and finally Nam See Hon (Robin Shou) goes up against the wild man Lai Chai, who cheats to win with some brass knuckles. Things get worse when Kent’s Gym owner, Mr. Kent (Joe Lewis), buys the property to Wai Chai gym out from under them, forcing See Hon, his godfather, and his adopted sister, Linda, to open a garage on the outskirts of Bangkok, where they are routinely harassed by thuggish lads who train at Kent’s gym.

Then along comes Tang Chuan (Mark Long), along with his daughter Tsu Chiu. Uncle Tang, as he’s referred to by See Hon, Linda, and Michael, the other guy at the garage and See Hon’s training partner, is a kung fu master, who demonstrates his ability by sanding the paint off of a car really fast. See Hon wants to train in his style, which he obliges. In the meantime, See Hon is annoyed by Linda running off with Bikin (Steve Tartalia), who she meets when he brings a car in to be fixed.
Mr. Kent finds it hard to put on exciting matches and profiteer off of gambling without Wai Chai gym around to provide competition, so he challenges See Hon to another match with his fighters by spreading posters promoting a fight before he even contacts See Hon or his godfather, with the stipulation that they get their gym back if See Hon wins, which they accept, of course. We see a potentially important scene in which Bikin gives Linda a bottle with some powder that he says was prepared by Tibetan monks to give strength to martial artists. She thanks him and he then tells her that she should show her thanks, which is then followed by the most cringe inducing makeout scene that thankfully cuts out before it transitions its elicited response from “cringe” to “vomit.”
The face of ecstasy
The powder is not a magic kung fu supplement, which should surprise nobody, but some sort of sedative or something, which Linda (of course) give See Hon without telling him or her godfather or even querying them over the subject. So See Hon is fighting Lai Chai, he in his now trademark leather caveman skirt and half-top, while stumbling about in his blue spandex body-suit and going blind. He remembers some words of wisdom from Uncle Tang though, and overcomes the effects of the drug and then beats the shit out of Lai Chai. Then Bikin jumps in the ring, flings the referee out, and starts fighting See Hon, managing to lose.

Gwai Lo actors just don’t have any luck in these movies.

Anyhow, Bikin then gets yelled at by Mr. Kent, and is forced to train. Wai Chai gym is reopened, and, in easily the least believable part of the story, everyone forgives that poisoning slut Linda. So all is well right? Well, no. There’s still plenty of movie left. More thugs show up to fight See Hon, this time with swords. See Hon beats them up a bit before getting stabbed and cut a whole bunch, but Uncle Tang arrives in time to save him. Then they kidnap Linda, so Uncle Tang goes and beats up the thugs handily. Unfortunately, Mr. Kent has dispatched his two female bodyguards, Billy and Jennifer, to fight Uncle Tang. They actually kill him too, using a sheer blouse as a net to tie him up, slashing his face with their sharp nails (again, not kidding), and finally stabbing him.

So See Hon goes inland to train with some monks, of which we see only one scene, where he fights a monkey kung fu guy (again, shades of Soul of Chiba here), while his godfather gets kidnapped by Mr. Kent’s thugs and Tsu Chiu takes revenge on Billy and Jennifer, in what actually turns out to be the best fight scene in the movie. This forces See Hon to return to Bangkok to fight Bikin in the eponymous death cage, an ovoid bamboo fort around a wood platform with sharp bamboo poles and wooden stakes pointing inwards. The finale goes as expected.

Death Cage is actually a pretty odd movie. The story is quite predictable -- we know who is going to win the big fights, for certain -- but it does not always follow the well worn beats of the genre. Who would expect, for instance, that See Hon would actually get sliced up by a bunch of random mooks wielding swords? That question sounds utterly ridiculous in reality. It is wholly unbelievable that anybody could beat up seven or eight guys who have long blades and are ganging up on him. But genre movies are not concerned with mimesis unless they are trying to subvert the generic expectation, or unless the writers and directors seemingly made stuff up as they went haphazardly.

But there are interesting things that don’t seem to be the result of merely “make it up as you go” writing. The training montage sequence gets flipped on its head, as Steve Tartalia’s Bikin is the one who gets the pounding music to scenes of wrestling with John Ladalski dressed as a stereotypical kung fu movie Mongolian and practicing tameshiwari on porcelain vases and performing martial arts forms. For the bad guy to get a training montage is unusual enough, but it’s actually a bit longer than the one given Robin Shou’s Nam See Hon. That training montage is interesting in its own right. 

You would expect that training with the traditional Chinese martial artist would involve lots of form work and Chi Kung and whatnot, but it actually is a mix up between the typical kung fu movie training sequence and the sort of thing one might see in a boxing film. Robin Shou even performs squats! With a home-made barbell to boot! Also some totally insane and unbelievable road-work.

Alas, it isn’t all that interesting. The biggest let down in Death Cage is, unexpectedly, the fight scenes. Say what you want about Robert Tai (and some people have), but do not try to deny that he was a genuinely creative fight choreographer. Sadly, that creativity did not translate terribly well from his usual period setting to a contemporary boxing ring. These are not Muay Thai style fights, but some sort of bare-knuckle, catch-as-can fights with undefined rules and a referee who is only in frame occasionally. There’s grappling and elbows and joint locks. It seems a bit like Robert Tai and co-action director Alexander Lo Rei (we’ll have to talk about him some day) saw some of the “shoot” style pro-wrestling taking place in Japan during the 1980’s and tried to replicate it with Hong Kong action choreography. Unfortunately, the grappling is largely silly, and while the striking exchanges are competent, they are not exciting, looking much like what one would typically see in any period set martial arts movie.

Not a brohug, actually. They're grappling.
And it carries on to the finale in the cage. There’s some wire work that looks awfully dodgy, although it is generally reserved for when somebody gets kicked really hard. Truth be told, Robert Tai’s wire work was always inventive, but rarely well realized on screen. It’s neither here.

That said, the editing is the worst during these fight scenes. HK and Taiwanese film makers of this
era did not pay much attention to spatial continuity during fight scenes, but tight editing usually helps to mask this. It fails here, and so we are left to wonder at when fighters made their way ten or fifteen feet across a flat surface in a matter of milliseconds.

But for all that, Death Cage is not terrible. The interesting parts, in my opinion, make for a fun diversion. Squats!

I enjoyed it enough, but then, I am easily entertained by this sort of thing. The simple pleasures of the genre are often enough to make even poorly conceived and sub-par excursions like Death Cage bearable, even enjoyable.

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