Director: Robert Warmflash
Cast: Charles Bonet, Speedy Leacock, Bill Louie, Thompson Kao Kang, Vincent Van Lynn, Thom Kendell, Abe Hendy, Tony Liu, Bob O’Connell, Tony DeCaprio
Duration: 95 mins.
By Paul Bramhall
While the grindhouse cinemas that lined the 42 in New Yorkna streets during the 1970s were filled with a steady stream of kung-fu films from Hong Kong and Taiwan, occasionally a more local product also populating the screens. This is the case in 1977 Death Promisewhich transfers the prerequisite of kung-fu action from the mean streets of Hong Kong to the even meaner streets of Brooklyn.
It’s easy to see how Death Promise it would fit in effortlessly with its kung-fu brethren from further afield, with a look and feel that has “grindhouse” written all over it. Long before Mark Zaror became known as the Latin Dragon, there was the Latin Panther in the form of Puerto Rican Charles Bonet in the 1970s. After getting her breakthrough alongside Ron Van Clief in 1975 Revenge of the Black DragonBonet has had an all too short film career in which he has starred in the likes of The death of Bruce Lee AND Way of the Black Dragon (which reunited him with Van Clief again), before spending the 1980s as a full-time martial arts instructor. Fortunately, however, before him, the world of kung-fu cinema landed him a leading role, and that honor went to Death Promise.
Playing a tenant who practices karate in an old tenement, he and the rest of the residents are constantly harassed by an evil real estate developer (and his finance buddies) to evict them so they can build new apartments in their place. Bonet’s character’s father, played by Bob O’Connell (hilariously credited as Rocky Crevice for reasons we’ll probably never know), serves as the tenants’ representative and is adamant in his message that they’re not selling, a stubbornness that ultimately the end sees him killed in mysterious circumstances. Thanks to a letter O’Connell leaves with Bonet’s karate instructor in case the worst happens, outlining the names of the property developer and his wealthy lackeys, Bonet and his sworn brother (played by Speedy Leacock in his only film appearance – apparently playing himself based on his character name) embarks on a mission of revenge, or to put it another way: a promise of death!
Let’s be clear – Death Promise it’s not high art and it’s definitely not big budget. Clearly created to cash in on the kung-fu craze of the era, it thankfully doesn’t need to be at least to deliver on the entertainment front. This would be the first and last time director Robert Warmflash would direct a film, before embarking on a successful career as a post-production supervisor from the mid-1980s (which would continue until the end of 2010), and if nothing else here has certainly assembled an eclectic cast. Bonet’s karate instructor is played by Thompson Kao Kang, who kung-fu fans will be more used to seeing in Hong Kong films like Guangzhou foreigner AND Kung Fu master called drunk cat. Despite playing a Japanese karate master named Shimada, in one scene he’s training a couple of students and we can clearly hear him speaking Cantonese to them! A small detail.
Kao Kang is not the only connection with Hong Kong Death Promise. Aware that Bonet isn’t ready to exact revenge against those responsible for his father’s death (it’s never really explained why someone who’s proficient in karate wouldn’t be able to take on a bunch of middle-aged corporate types, but we’ll go with it ), Kao Kang puts him on a plane (where is never explained) to meet another master and continue his training. The master is played by Lau Wing from the likes of Bruce Lee The big boss AND Fist of Furyand what’s most interesting about his appearance here is that he comes from one of his most critically acclaimed roles as the titular Emperor Chien Lung in the 1976 Shaw Brothers film of the same name. How it ever ended up in a low-budget Brooklyn exploitation film the following year is another promises of death’ tantalizing mysteries.
Bonet joins another of Wing’s students played by Bill Louie (bruce vs. I count, The old master), who strangely makes his first appearance in Whiteface, to hone his skills in ways that are never quite clear. We get to see Louie perform the moves with double nunchucks in a show that, just like Bonet, makes you wish you had a longer career in front of the camera. Either way, when Bonet returns to New York, he’s ready to team up with Speedy Leacock to take out those rich bigwigs one by one!
Their prep work for this one is admittedly hilarious, as each night they sit across from each other at a small dinner table and look at the list of names to decide who they’ll bust next. Once they agree, they high-five each other and it’s off to get revenge. Play the dinner table scene again to move on to the next target. I’ve actually laughed out loud when they decide for one of their goals that “they’ll take the night off, we’ll do it tomorrow”. The balance between revenge and life must have been a big thing in the 70s. Revenge missions are fun stuff, from a truly gruesome application of a sack full of live rats, to an archery round that turns unexpectedly deadly, the bumbling nature of the performances coupled with the accompanying death scenes turns out to be a winning combination.
The real show though is rightfully saved for the finale, when Bonet, Leacock, and Louie (who decides to join them, well, just because) team up to infiltrate the tower where the real estate developer is based and take him out. Knowing that they are coming, he made sure that the place is well guarded so it won’t be an easy task. What I can safely say though is that it will be loud. It seems that the villains’ lackeys have been told to be as loud as possible when engaging in combat, which they take to such extremes that the entire sequence becomes a surreal bliss. Headlining them all is Bob Long, a New Jersey-based karate grandmaster who made his only film appearance here. With a mop of blonde hair slicked back impressively (it really has to be seen to be appreciated), her near-constant battle cries sound similar to something like a 90-year-old woman being strangled, and are only offset by her speed. of crisp execution and power.
One twist allows all 3 good leads to have their time to shine in one-on-one rooftop fights, ensuring enough kung-fu action is crammed in to make it worth the time of any 1990s American martial arts fan 70 art films. The action itself was amazingly choreographed by the trio of Bonet, Louie and Kao Kang, the one and only time one of them would direct the action, however, despite their inexperience, what’s on screen probably provides the goods. In a sense, the same could be said for every aspect of Death Promisewith the lack of experience behind the camera compensated for by an energy and earnestness in front of it.
There’s an incredible amount of close-ups on the actors’ faces as they speak, almost as if the cinematographer has been told that when the cast delivers their lines, the most important thing is that their faces completely fill the frame. You can practically see the concentration on Kao Kang’s face to deliver his lines in English, but even that is completely overcome by the constant cutaways to Bill Louie’s random reaction shots during the final fight. It almost seems as if someone was just off camera yelling at him expressions like “Shocked!”, “Surprised!”, “Grimace!” – then they were inserted at chosen moments to add impact. They do, but probably not for the reasons you expect.
Indeed, although not all the entertainment value is there Death Promise it’s of the intentional variety, which doesn’t make it less than a recommendation. With a killer Opus theme song that rivals that of Jigsaw Sky high in catchiness, and a 1970s New York captured on film who seems as much a movie character today as anyone in the cast (and based on some of the acting, in some cases even more), Death Promise It’s pure B-movie goodness.
Paul Bramhall Rating: 7/10