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Tiger Claws

1992, Starring Jalal Merhi, Bolo Yeung, Cynthia Rothrock, Nick Dibley, Fern Figueiredo, Jack Vorvis. Directed by Kelly Makin (FilmOne Productions).

The movie that introduced both FilmOne Productions and its young star/producer Jalal Merhi into the international martial arts spotlight, Tiger Claws is a by-the-numbers chop socky police thriller lensed on the mean and gritty streets of Toronto. Strangely enough, it all began as a vanity project that was born after Merhi, a martial arts competitor and diamond jeweler, sold off his business to bankroll an ongoing series of films meant to show off his questionable fighting skills by depicting himself on screen as a charismatic and powerful kung fu champion. As eccentric as that may seem, it was this film that established the assertive Merhi as one of the sole torchbearers for Canadian action films, as well as one of the most prolific Toronto-area producers of the 1990s.

As with later FilmOne projects that would pair him with bigger and better martial arts stars, Tiger Claws features Merhi as Tarek Richards, a suspended "loose cannon" NYC vice cop who is partnered with ambitious detective Linda Masterson (Cynthia Rothrock) to solve a series of vicious murders around the city. It seems that several high-profile martial artists are being killed by an unknown master known as "The Death Dealer," who uses Tiger Style kung fu to leave a telltale claw mark on his victim's cheek.

Already a fixture on the local competitive scene, Richards goes undercover in Chinatown backrooms and clandestine training facilities to uncover the identity of the killer, eventually being accepted as a student of Tiger Style teacher Sifu Choy (Mo Chow ). There, he meets Chong (played by Chinese Hercules himself, Bolo Yeung), a quiet mural painter who--in what comes as no surprise to the viewer--is the real culprit who has been knocking off non-traditionalists for reasons never properly explained by the script. Just as an awkward romance ignites between the two woodenly portrayed cops, they are kicked off the case by their hard-assed police chief, and Richards is then wrongfully arrested as the killer. Coincidently, Chong chooses this moment to finally reveal himself, forcing a bare-knuckles showdown with the handcuffed Richards. Though "The Death Dealer" had previously taken out world-class champions and masters with his bare hands, and even gotten the best of a kayak-paddle wielding Cynthia Rothrock, Richards only takes a few lumps before he trounces the killer with one hand tied behind his back--literally.

Taking on one of Canuxploitation's most unenviable jobs, it's up to director Kelly Makin to pump some life into Tiger Claws' dire acting performances and overly simplistic story, which squanders an okay idea with too many TV cop show clichés and a lack of both surprises and suspense. Makin, who was working on The Kids in the Hall TV show at the time, does his best by giving the film a slight but much-needed tongue-in-cheek tone that clearly echoes the series, and he keeps things moving the best he can with some creatively shot set pieces--Richards aiming his gun directly at the viewer, a sensei brutally murdered while he boasts about his skills on a nearby set, and a strip club bullet ballet bathed in neon and disco ball reflections. Merhi rarely used experienced directors for his films, so the addition of Makin's eye, though clearly developed on the small screen, easily elevates Tiger Claws above many of FilmOne's subsequent works, which are often hampered by boring compositions and amateurishly captured fights.

While it's common for Canadian films to disguise themselves as American productions, few do it quite as badly as Tiger Claws--despite a handful of stock establishing shots meant to set the film in Manhattan, there's an abundance of clues as to the production's real country of origin, including a map of Ontario in the background of the police station, signs and police band radio calls that reference Toronto streets, and even recognizable landmarks like the Donlands Theatre, which was purchased by Merhi in the 1980s and later turned into a soundstage for use in almost all his films, including this one. Merhi lends further local credibility by bringing in some big names in the Canadian martial arts world including John Atkinson, a three-time North American Kung Fu Champion, Bill Pickells, a teacher, tournament organizer and cable-access television personality from outside Toronto, and several other recognized Senseis from around the province, including Mo Chow, Rick Sue, Michael Bernardo and Dunn Wah.

Despite (or perhaps because of) its obvious flaws, Tiger Claws nonetheless achieved what only a few other Canadian-made vanity pics have. Coasting on the marquee value of Rothrock and Yeung, as well as a resurgence of cheap martial arts franchises like Kickboxer and Bloodsport (in which Yeung also played a villain named Chong), the film was picked up for distribution by Cineplex-Odeon in Canada, and Universal in the States, and soon became a minor cult hit popular enough that when he lost those same deals a few years later, Merhi was able to bank on the brand name of his first big hit by cranking out two sequels that added a sci-fi/fantasy twist to the serial killer formula, with predictable results.

A mostly silly martial arts thriller certain to test your tolerance for watching ponytailed egoiosts handily put the smack down on champion Chinese body builders, Tiger Claws may not make much of an impression on viewers with its badly developed plot and substandard acting, but it still stands as the most watchable entry in FilmOne's prolifically putrid catalogue.

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