Director: Mark Swetland
Cast: David Male, Joanne Gagliardo, Elaine Arnone, Diane Zdarsky, John Raszeja, David Bobik, Rick Swetland, Ron Detrick, Scott Sehl, Jim Reeb
Running Time: 87 min.
By Paul Bramhall
One side effect from the emergence of boutique Blu-ray labels over the last 10 years, is that we’ve seen a deluge of increasingly obscure and “lost” low budget productions being given the deluxe release treatment, some of them even getting 2K or 4K remasters. The marketing of such releases tends to willingly lean into the whole “so bad it’s good” factor, with common themes like a lack of funding and dubious acting all lending themselves to a certain look and feel. However in the cold light of day the reality is most of these movies are rarely worthy of the hype that comes with them. Movies like Samurai Cop and Miami Connection are true rarities that genuinely entertain in that distinctly “so bad it’s good” style, however for every Samurai Cop, there seems to be at least 10 other similarly marketed releases that simply fall into the category of “so bad”.
With that being said, I still found myself being drawn to the SRS Home Video release of Blood and Steel, which hit DVD (not even a Blu-ray!) in 2022. A 1990 shot on 16mm backyard passion project, on paper it has all the hallmarks of being another part of the “so bad it’s good” release cannon fodder. However, being a kung-fu movie fan, the image that graces the cover of a guy sporting a blonde hair moptop in the iconic Game of Death yellow tracksuit while brandishing nunchucks was enough to pique my interest. Plus, the fact that it was using the original working title of Enter the Dragon was admittedly a nice choice, offering up a glimmer of hope that this could indeed be a “lost gem” (words that are frequently thrown around for such releases, although admittedly, there was no sign of them in any of SRS’s blurbs for this one).
The gentleman on the cover is Mark Swetland, and for Blood and Steel he stars, directs, choreographs, writes, produces, edits, and probably a few other production related roles that I’ve missed out on mentioning. To top it off, he’s playing a character called Mark Swetland. If you were to accuse Blood and Steel of being a vanity project for the young Swetland, it’d be hard to argue. Proceedings open at night with a knife wielding masked killer stalking a woman swimming in her home’s backyard pool, a scene that culminates in her throat being cut. We soon learn that the woman was Swetland’s sister, and when his girlfriend (who looks distinctly uncomfortable to be on camera in every scene she’s in) breaks it to him that she’s been murdered, he swears to find those responsible and kill them with his own hands. You could almost say it’s a little like Bruce Lee looking to avenge the murder of his sister in Enter the Dragon.
Except here nobody has much to offer in the acting department, and Swetland comes across as the opposite of someone fuelled by rage and grief on a quest for revenge, instead giving off a friendly and likeable aura, not helped by inserting scenes in which we get to watch him feed his dog. So it was, as with so many of these productions, in the initial third my attention started to wander, and the thought may have even entered my mind if it was going to be worth making it to the end credits. However that all changed when Swetland’s enquiries lead him to a martial arts school, and out of nowhere it feels like the spirit of the Little Dragon possesses his body.
Clearly riffing on the dojo scene from Fist of Fury, a blistering fight sequence breaks out which has Swetland lay waste to the multiple students who attempt to take him down, with crisp choreography, impactful blows (complimented by some meaty sound design), and dynamic camera work. The quality of the scene alone immediately elevated Blood and Steel from the “so bad it’s good” playing field, with it becoming immediately apparent that Swetland is not only a legitimate martial artist, but also one who knows how to adapt his skills to a screen fighting aesthetic. Clearly a huge fan of Bruce Lee (the movie is dedicated to him in the end credits), Blood and Steel feels like the product of an American kung-fu movie fan who knows kung-fu, and has just spent the last decade watching the likes of Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung do their thing.
Just how down pat Swetland has Bruce Lee’s mannerisms and combat movements is almost worth the price of admission alone. It may be unlikely that a blonde haired blue eyed white guy from the U.S. would have been cast as the next Bruceploitation star had he been around during the genre’s heyday, however once you see him in action it’d be hard to argue why he shouldn’t. While there’s no denying that Blood and Steel is a low budget 16mm movie that Swetland roped all his friends into appearing in, it’s also true to say the effort that’s gone into creating a legitimate kung-fu flick is fully there to see onscreen. At one point he throws himself down a steep concrete embankment from a decent height, and in another he pulls off the Yuen Wah doubled Bruce Lee somersault kick (without the need for a double!), however the highlight goes to a fight against a hitman played by David W. Bobik (who also assisted on choreography duty).
In a fight scene that took 24 hours to film, the pair go at it in a lengthy exchange incorporating boxing, kung-fu, jiu-jitsu, and probably a few other disciplines I didn’t catch. The fight is a joy to watch, with one part going to the ground for some frantic grappling, predating the type of MMA infused screen fighting Donnie Yen would popularise with 2005’s SPL by 15 years. While I don’t usually go into the details of specific releases, the fact that the SRS DVD is likely the only one we’ll get has me willing to make an exception, as there’s an excellent Fight Analysis special feature in which Swetland and Bobik reunite to provide a commentary on certain fights. Of course their own is one of them, and amazingly we learn that some parts were unchoreographed (including the grappling), which amusingly sees them occasionally stop and rewind the footage in slow motion to appreciate a move one of them pulled off against the other.
The time and care that’s gone into the fight scenes turn what could have been another run of the mill low budget 16mm obscurity into an entertaining 87 minutes, with the proficiency and passion Swetland shows when he’s in action making an amusing counterpoint to his wonky acting in the non-action scenes. The same can be applied to the narrative, which barrels along with what’s best described as an innocent goofiness. The perfect example being when Swetland turns up to face the drug dealing bad guys for the finale in the Game of Death tracksuit, flanked by a group of local kung-fu practicing do-gooders called the Guardian Angels (who wear matching branded t-shirts).
A highlight of this sequence sees Swetland lay waste to a small army of lackeys in the parking lot, only for the main villain to get away in a car. Swetland gives chase behind the wheel of his own, but rather than reversing out, he decides to show no mercy and goes full throttle forward, hilariously running over all the sprawled-out lackeys on the ground. The juxtaposition of the unassumingly charming nature of the production, alongside such out of the blue scenes of gratuitous bodily harm and violence, ensures Blood and Steel keeps the audience on their toes, even if it’s completely unintentional.
While I feel inclined to say it’d have been awesome to see more of Swetland’s talents utilised in the action genre (he’d go on to have a small role in the following years American Shaolin and disappear), at the same time it’s clear it’s a production he gave 110% of himself to and probably has no regrets. What starts out looking like a cheap horror flick ends up as a true example of a “lost gem”, combining Bruceploitation, high impact Hong Kong style choreography, and a guy having his crotch attacked by a rabbit trap. The end credits state “Only a few actors really got hit by Mark during the making of this production”, more than 30 years since Blood and Steel was first released, hopefully now they can feel it was worth it!
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 8/10