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Twin Dragon Encounter

1986, Starring Michael McNamara, Martin McNamara, B. Bob, Monica McKenna, Carol Nawrocki. Directed by Paul Dunlop (Manesco Films).

Identical twins and martial arts experts Martin and Michael McNamara opened their very first Twin Dragon Kung-Fu & Kickboxing school in Toronto in 1972. Now boasting eight clubs in Ontario, the McNamara brothers have spent the last three decades tirelessly promoting professional kickboxing exhibitions, and their esteemed alumni includes several certified world champions. Not content to keep their activities confined to the squared circle, however, the brothers are also the guiding force behind Twin Dragon Film Productions, Ltd., a vanity film company that has so far released three micro-budget action films designed to promote the sport and the brothers themselves--Twin Dragon Encounter, Dragon Hunt, and most recently, the semi-autobiographical (but apparently unreleased) The Real Twin Dragons.

The McNamara's first outing, Twin Dragon Encounter is a crude survivalist/rescue mission film that paved the way for Canadian action cinema to come. After a short sequence in which the brothers thwart a roving mob of muggers in a park harassing a woman and her dog, a bizarre, Star Wars-like text crawl appears to inform viewers insists that the McNamara's are "real men who knew the meaning of life." The film then launches into a plot something like Straw Dogs reset in the pixelated world of the Double Dragon arcade game. Michael and Martin McNamara, playing themselves, close up their kung-fu school for the week and grab their best girls (Monica McKenna, Carol Nawrocki) for some rest and relaxation up at the cottage. On the way, they discuss recent news reports that a mohawked thug named Jake (B. Bob) has been terrorizing the local vacationers with his criminal band of wannabe soldiers--the McNamaras derisively refer to them as a bunch of "weekend warriors." After a quick rest stop at a restaurant where they are forced to beat up a few truckers making smart remarks ("Confucius say: when fighting truckers, nail the suckers" offers Martin), the brothers arrive at the dock to discover Jake is already there waiting for them. But when his advances on the twins' girlfriends are spurned by some carefully placed roundhouse kicks, Jake swears vengeance as he watches the victorious foursome speed across the river.

Once the brothers and their girls all arrive at Twin Island--what appears to be their own private domain--the narrative seems to lose its way as they start their vacation. There's swimming, fishing, cozy campfires, hikes and references to romantic encounters as the days wear on and, in an odd digression, they all even spend a night in the guys' tree fort to avoid a black bear prowling around the area. But soon the brothers begin to have more frequent run-ins with Jake and his goon squad, until one afternoon they return to discover that their girls have been kidnapped. Grabbing their crossbows and donning matching camouflage karate outfits, the Twin Dragons spring into action, piloting their mini-hovercraft(!) to the island where Jake's hiding out. They hop in a carefully concealed ATV and start taking out the guards one by one. But the Dragons aren't the only vacationers willing to fight back--as some of the lonely soldiers of fortune set their eyes on the girls (or knock apples off their heads with nunchucks), the ferocious females unleash all the brain-busting training they received at their boyfriends' martial arts academy!

The McNamara brothers' first attempt at cinematic glory was produced by Anthony Kramreither under his Manesco Films label just before the tax shelter was fully collapsed in 1987. Though one of Kramreither's most entertaining productions, obviously Twin Dragon Encounter isn't a particularly well-crafted film--it's an amateurish affair that suffers from lax plotting, charisma-free performances and frustrating slow-motion fights that seem intended to hide the inaccurate stunt fighting--but its place in Canadian history is nonetheless important. Along with Damian Lee's less interesting 1986 boxing epic Busted Up, Twin Dragon Encounter was the pioneering Canadian action film, a cheap B-effort that faithfully bowed to the larger Hollywood action trend largely dominated by Cannon Films. Taking place almost exclusively in backwoods forest settings, it's a rudimentary beat-'em-up picture that almost certainly set the stage for such future action attempts like Cinepix's Snake Eater trilogy and the films of Jalal Merhi, who has almost single-handedly dominated the Canadian martial arts market since the 1990s.

And make no mistake, unlike many of those later films, Twin Dragon Encounter is a purely Canadian effort that fully acknowledges its north-of-the-border setting, perhaps as proof of its repeated claim that the Twin Dragons are Canada's most famous martial artists (and thus why a prospective American viewer may not be familiar with them). Shot in picturesque Pointe Au Baril, Ontario, the film never misses a chance to drop in a local reference or a billowing Canadian flag, whether out on the dock of their island or as a bumper sticker on the twins' impressive array of vehicles. Like the later "cottage cult classic" Psycho Pike, it also subverts a real-life seasonal tradition, as viewers are taken from the big city of Toronto to a wilder setting where vacations are fraught with rural, more primitive dangers that lurk behind every run-down cabin and empty 2-4.

Aside from its regional setting, though, Twin Dragon Encounter mines all the familiar tropes of the genre, from ludicrously sadistic bad guys, unintended homoerotcism, bafflingly witless one-liners and a soundtrack of '80s power ballads (by Southern Ontario ex-bar band rocker Billy Butt). But Twin Dragon Encounter is very much situated in the same ego-centric, no-budget cinematic universe as Deadly Prey and Miami Connection, a kind of distillation of the protagonists' philosophies that also pays vain tribute to their apparently envious lifestyle. Ostensibly playing themselves, the twins spend more at least as much time showing off their apparent wealth and success--the aforementioned fleet of sports vehicles, a private island, bikini babes, matching kung-fu school vans--than they do displaying their martial arts skills. Even their island log cabin (that they constructed with their own hands, natch) is carefully adorned with posters of themselves without shirts.

As part of this small-scale mythmaking, the film spends an inordinate amount of time distancing the brothers from what they obviously perceive as "fakes"--the opening crawl posits the diminutive twins as more authentic than any "plastic" Hollywood action heroes, while the plot sharply contrasts them with the yokels in Jake's private army that are simply "playing" at war and fighting. One character even refers to them as the "toughest guys in the world." There's no denying the McNamara's impressive credentials as authentic martial artists, but as the mullet-sporting pair tool around Northern Ontario in an ATV shooting off crossbows, it's hard to look at the brothers as anything but weekend warriors themselves--a criticism that can be equally levelled at this film as well as their slightly superior self-produced follow-up, Dragon Hunt. Regardless of questions of authenticity, the McNamaras deserve at least some credit as cinematic heroes--at a time when no one in Canada was even considering making gung-ho action pics, these enterprising martial artists kicked their way into the annals of Canuxploitation, almost single-handedly championing this underrepresented genre.

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