Movie review: ‘Battle Creek Brawl’ aka ‘The Big Brawl’

I found an old film on YouTube.com and reviewed it yesterday (“TAG: The Assassination Game” – click here for my review) and continued mining that seemingly infinite website and found another good oldie to watch: Jackie Chan in the action film “Battle Creek Brawl.” It’s sometimes listed as “The Big Brawl,” but it’s the same film and the original credits list it as “Battle Creek Brawl.” The martial arts were big in the late 1970s and early 1980s, especially nunchaku and butterfly knives, and in the wake of the seminal “Enter the Dragon” from 1974 with Bruce Lee, the martial arts genre remained popular for more than a decade. “Battle Creek Brawl” is fun to watch and Chan is very good as far as this kind of film goes and there are some surprises in the supporting cast. Go to YouTube.com and check it out!

‘BATTLE CREEK BRAWL’
(1980; 95 minutes; rated R; directed by Robert Clouse and starring Jackie Chan, Kristine DeBell, Jose Ferrer and Mako)

JACKIE CHAN OFFERS GREAT FIGHT SEQUENCES

(NOTE: I expanded this review with additional opinion and trivia as well as updating some links and fixing a few typos on Feb. 4, 2016. I again updated some links and added opinion and trivia on July 4, 2017.)

Battle Creek Brawl” is one of those films you will remember as being or find out that it is not very good. It has a shaky, paper-thin plot and only middling output by the actors, but it is still a lot of fun to watch – especially when you know some of the back (and future) stories about the cast. Although this one bombed at the box office and only moderate success on video, “Battle Creek Brawl” is worth your time because of Jackie Chan’s fight scenes. They are choreographed and executed to perfection – at least to this untrained eye.

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The film is the first American feature film and first English-speaking one for Chan. Interestingly, it’s the first in which his voice is actually heard, since in all his previous Asian efforts, his voice had been dubbed into either Cantonese or Mandarin, according to IMDb.com. It took Chan some time to regain traction in Hollywood since “Battle Creek Brawl” bombed at the box office, but it does have his signature marriage of comedy infused in his martial arts and his sometimes less-than-serious outlook as a character.

In the “Battle Creek Brawl,” Chan plays “Jerry Kwan,” who is an Asian-American martial arts specialist whose father doesn’t like him fighting. When gangsters come to collect protection money from his father’s business, he gives them a beat-down. In a parallel plotline, the mobsters are looking for someone who can win a big upcoming street brawl in Battle Creek, Texas (yes, there is one there as well as the more famous cereal capital in Michigan). The two plotlines converge and the gangsters – aided by the kidnapping of a family member of Chan – manage to force him fight in the vicious bare-knuckles fight so that they can win big money.

To further complicate matters, on the day of the fight his martial arts sensei (Mako in a terrific role as “Herbert”) is kidnapped as one of the gangsters double-crosses his boss. Of course Jackie wins and settles his scores … so everyone else but the bad guys win, too.

Here’s a look at some of the primary cast and their work here:

  • Chan overplays his role just a bit here in the fight scenes but otherwise does OK with the small amount of drama injected to “Battle Creek Brawl.” His earnestness is forced a bit, too, but he is watchable and likable and given the interest of martial arts of the day I don’t understand why this one didn’t do better. Chan was also the much better half of the “Rush Hour” franchise with the uber-annoying Chris Tucker, as well as in other films such as “The Cannonball Run” with Burt Reynolds (click here for my review) and “Shanghai Knights.”
  • The most impressive supporting actor is Oscar winner José Ferrer, who plays vicious and amoral mob boss “Dominici.” Ferrer is solid here in a commanding way, but certainly doesn’t show much of the talent he did 26 years earlier in “The Caine Mutiny” (click here for my review) or his Oscar winner 30 years earlier for best actor in “Cyrano de Bergerac.” It’s a good-sized role for a non-fighter in a martial arts film, but the general low-budget nature of the film apparently rubs off on him. Ferrer was also nominated for Oscars in supporting roles in “Moulin Rouge” and “Joan of Arc.” He was also in the sci-fi flick “Dune.”
  • I almost always like the work of Oscar-nominated Mako, who is as good here as he was in Sam Peckinpah’s “The Killer Elite” (click here for my review). Here, he punches out his work with aplomb – pun intended, I guess. He plays the wise advisor and sensei to Chan. Mako was also in “Rising Sun” with Sean Connery as well as a string of TV roles – even including “Love, American Style” from the 1960s. Another little-remembered film of his was “Sidekicks,” which was headlined by Chuck Norris (click here for my review). Mako was nominated for an Oscar in “The Sand Pebbles” with Steve McQueen and he died in 2006 at the age of 72 of cancer.
  • It’s my week for reviewing films with Kristine DeBell in the supporting cast. She plays “Nancy,” who is Chan’s girlfriend and supporter. DeBell, who was in adult films before going mainstream in movies, is not as good here as she was the year before as “A.L.” in “Meatballs” with Bill Murray (click here for my review) or in “TAG: The Assassination Game.” She remains earnest and has a bright personality, but there’s only so much to work with in this role. DeBell has also been in “The Main Event” as well as a string of TV roles. After more than a decade out of Hollywood (1990 through 2012), DeBell has restarted her career recently with a variety roles.

The most interesting supporting actor is Lenny Montana, who is most famous and easily recognized as “Luca Brasi” from “The Godfather” (he was garroted in the bar, remember?). Montana plays “John,” who is a big enforcer but comes off pretty much aged for the character. His acting is wooden, but you can easily through his voice recall him wishing “Don Corleone” well on the wedding day. Montana, who died of a heart attack at 66, was also in “The Jerk” with Steve Martin.

I am not a martial arts expert but I truly enjoy the choreography of the fight scenes here. From the opening one in an alley where Chan has to pretend not to fight as he beats up his opponents to a roller skating event and the final street fight scenes, he does a marvelous job and it is a lot of fun to watch. However, Chan didn’t have complete creative control over the fight sequences and he didn’t like not being in charge of them.

Battle Creek Brawl” was the 68th ranked film at the U.S. box office in 1980 with $8.5 million in ticket sales, according to Box Office Mojo. It made a further HK5.7 million in its Asian release in Hong Kong, according to Wiki. “Battle Creek Brawl” was roundly panned by critics and the No. 1 film of the year was – unsurprisingly – “Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back” with $209.3 million. Here are the other films from 1980 that I’ve reviewed for this blog:

Assorted cast and film notes (via IMDb.com):

  • Montana’s real name was Lenny Passaforo and he was born in New York City.
  • Although his part is tiny, I bet you’ll recognize Ox Baker in an uncredited role as one of the fighters. You’ll recognize him because of his fierce fu manchu moustache. He had it and just about the same look when he was a fighter matched against Kurt Russell in “Escape from New York” (click here for my review).
  • The other supporting actor with a great name is Jeep Swenson. He, too, is uncredited and played a fighter. He was also in “Batman & Robin” in 1997, the year he died at age 40 of heart failure.
  • Finally and directly from IMDb.com: “In his autobiography ‘I Am Jackie Chan: My Life in Action,’ there was one scene in the production in which Robert Clouse is not interested in Chan’s idea which is to flip out of the car and had wanted him to just walk from the car to his father restaurant. Chan quote’s ‘No one will pay money to see Jackie Chan walk!’ The reason he believes this film failed was because he wasn’t given a chance to direct the action scenes the way he wanted them for the film.”

© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2014-2016, 2017.
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