The Action Mutant…
wanted to see Tony the Tiger and Rob Van Dam duke it out in this film…what a gyp!
Battle Creek Brawl (aka The Big Brawl)
review by Joe Burrows
SEPTEMBER 10, 1980 - I am writing this as The Big Brawl is premiering in New York tonight. It stars this karate cat named Jackie Chan and all I have heard is how great this guy is, how agile and flexible he is and how he does all of his own stuff. What I’d like to know is…can he scale a horse on his own? Can he kick Chuck Norris’ ass? Can he hold his own in a drinking contest? It’s a shame that John Wayne is barely cold in the ground because I’m sure he could show this greenhorn how to don a stallion! Is this guy supposed to be the next “Bruce Lee” or something? We all know that “kung fu” films are dead…it’s all about NINJAS now! And Asians can’t hold their own in EATING contests, let alone drinking contests! And come to find out, this Chan guy is going to have a role in The Cannonball Run…which only stars the world’s greatest actor in BURT REYNOLDS! I predict nothing but Oscars and fat grosses for Burt in the upcoming decade. This Chan guy can only hope one of Burt’s mustache hairs will brush up against him so he can retain a fiftieth of the charisma Burt has! I mean, its not like this Jackie is going to get two…or three chances to make it big here, right?
“Big” Johnny Mesa
The Action Molecular Hybrid
The Action Mutant. That’s why we’re an original. (Hey, we don’t have the benefit of the New York Times for advertising. Or the Special Olympics.)
The Plot, as it was:
Chan plays Jerry Kwan, a young buck that learns to fight from his uncle Herbert (Mako) in 1930’s Chicago. When he’s not trying to get some loving from his comely girlfriend Nancy (Kristine DeBell), he’s fighting off mobsters that consistently roust his father’s business. Jerry’s fighting skills catch the eye of mob boss Domenici (Jose Ferrer), who offers the young man an interesting proposition. The mob blackmails Jerry into entering a street fighting tournament in Battle Creek, Texas, which the syndicate has a vested interest in. Jerry must face off against many colorful characters, namely Kiss (legendary pro wrestler Hardboiled Haggerty), a brawler that finishes his opponents off with the “Kiss of Death”. And he means it literally!
Don’t shoot me…I’m only the reviewer!:
It’s not like Battle Creek Brawl (or The Big Brawl, as it was known in America in its initial release; BCB is its alternate/current DVD title, hence the title I’m going with here) is an unlikable movie. On the contrary, some moments resemble some of the broad comedy that would make its way into Jackie’s forays later in the decade. There are the expected training montages, sexual but playful material and goofy fights (and crazy eye for detail…Roller Derby in the 1930s? Guh?). However, it’s the fight choreography that may frustrate hardcore Chan fans from enjoying this like casual fans would. See, even back in the day, Jackie was used to working 110 mph at everything he did. Here, he is working with American actors & stuntmen that are used to the standard 55 mph. Put them together and you get a product with fight scenes that (while fun) are slower and awkward than what both Chan & his audience are used to. This is mainly to do with Warner Bros. putting Pat Johnson in as the fight coordinator, meaning the fights are in the more conventional “roundhouse” punching mode. There’s nothing else remarkable going on either, as the story is nonexistent and the supporting cast doesn’t have much to do. Well, Haggerty does have fun as a snarling villain and he does have the right stache to work with. But really…how did Oscar winner Jose Ferrer get pulled into this? House payment due? Social Security cut off? Money to go to George Clooney’s acting lessons? Aside from adding presence, Ferrer doesn’t do much and all DeBell is there for is to look pretty (which she accomplishes well). Anyway, Jackie does shine in a few moments (his opening scene, the training sequences, the roller derby race etc.) but you would have never gotten the sense that this guy would be something big if you saw this in 1980. He does just enough with his dialogue to get by (he was learning English as the production moved along!) and his scenes with Mako are fun in a familiar “student/teacher” vein. The tournament itself is great, breezy fun and involves more old style slapstick than trademark Chan-fu. Despite an out of place side brawl in a movie theater, you will most likely leave BCB with a grin on your face though Chanonites will wholeheartedly admit this was one of the man’s lesser efforts. Hey, cheer up, though…at least it wasn’t The Protector! That’s another story altogether.
Character/Supporting Actor Sighting!:
- This was extra fun for me due to the litany of old school pro wrestlers making cameos. Joining Haggerty is Lenny Montana (the infamous Luca Brasi in The Godfather) as a Mafioso, Ox Baker (red tights and crazy eyebrows & stache), Earl Maynard (the Jamaican) and Gene LeBell as fighters in the tourney and Jeep Swenson (Batman & Robin, Bulletproof) as a thug. There may likely be more but those are all that are listed at IMDB.
- Larry Drake (Darkman, Dr. Giggles) is the announcer at the roller derby.
Body Count/Violence: 2. As with the other film the production team for this one is known for (Enter the Dragon), this is kind of open for interpretation. The only confirmed death is when Kiss breaks the Jamaican’s back during their match (whoops!). There is a point in the theater brawl where Jerry kicks a mobster off of a balcony and he lands on some theater seats. Kwan gives him that prolonged “death stare” before he goes about his business, which is why I counted it. Anyway, there is a lot of brawling (surprise), after the fact bloodying, weapon use (including Jackie’s trademark workbench at one point), backbreaking, Roller Derby physicality and some vehicular mayhem.
Sexuality/Nudity: This takes the usual Chan approach of being almost juvenile with its approach towards anything sexual. I would bring up how absolutely no one has a problem with an American woman and a Chinese man being together in 1930s Chicago (though Jerry is called “Chinaman” and “Chink” enough times, I suppose) but it does allow DeBell to be in a sheer white bra in one scene. The less said about Herbert’s fetish, the better. (Note: I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that DeBell’s initial claim to fame was being in the XXX version of Alice in Wonderland in 1976. Yes, she played Alice. And yes, the Queen wants her head but…well, I’ll just stop there.)
Language/Dialogue: Very mild, with “goddamn” being the most prevalent thing heard. And maybe “bastard” but no one British said it, so I can’t recall for sure.
How bad was it?:
Despite what I said about Chan’s most ardent observers pooh-poohing this because of its place in his filmography, most reviews I read gave it pleasant (though not spectacular) praise. A few thought it was too dull as dishwater compared to his other work but the critical response is more favorable now than it was upon its initial release, when all critics heard was of Jackie’s immense reputation and the diminishing results to follow.
Did it make the studio’s day?:
Considering it took Chan three opportunities to crack into the American film landscape, it’s safe to say the first time wasn’t the charm. Released by Warner Bros. on 8/29/80 (no budget figures are known), The Big Brawl opened at #1 amongst limited releases leading up to Labor Day by grossing $1.1 million, beating out the venerable Don Scardino classic He Knows You’re Alone. The flick ended its run with a gross of $8.5 million, being a mild success but nowhere near the numbers the studio expected. They figured it would be a hit because a) it was done by the production team that did Enter the Dragon and b) Jackie Chan was Asian and knew Martial Arts. Clever minds, these executives are! BCB also grossed $5.8 million in Chan's homeland of Hong Kong during two weeks in October of 1980. It eventually became a hit in video and can be found on DVD as Battle Creek Brawl on the 20th Century Fox/Fortune Star label.
Entertainment value: ****/*****
Copyright 2008 The Action Mutant.