It is the future. Solar flares have led to environmental catastrophe. A once proud America is now a mixture of totalitarian states, gang territories, and warlord fiefdoms. With everyone scrounging for the scraps, who are the few good people left to rely on?
A woman with a bare face runs through darkened streets and alleys, pursued by masked hoodlums who give no explanation. They kill her friend, an Amazonian blond in leopard print armed with a long chain. They throw rocks like rioters protesting against freedom. And then they come face to face with John Travis, the last cop and a martial arts expert, who kicks their butts faster than a presidential tweet about Law & Order. Specifically the show, I think. It had a great intro theme.
Ok, enough bad political hot takes aside, this is how Karate Cop begins, not with a whimper but with a karate kicked…whimper. Woman in trouble, super cop shows up and saves her. He then tries to take her home in the car from Blues Brothers, but another gang shows up that’s run by a nuclear mutant, and things go bad. Then John Travis ends up helping the woman fix a teleporter machine to save a bunch of kids from an evil warlord with a fighting arena…
…Aww crap, it’s Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. A cop in a post-apocalyptic wasteland has to fight a crazy despot and help rescue a bunch of kids, and we don’t even get the benefit of seeing Tina Turner. What we do get is a bad guy with a bleached blond faux-hawk-mullet who wants to use crystal-powered teleporters to sell drugs and apparently employs a mutant who dresses like Shao Kahn from Mortal Kombat. But since the crystal is broken anyway in the kids’ teleporter, it’s up to Travis to go find a new one in a section of plot that involves some kind of cult or something. I don’t know, it lasted maybe three minutes. And then David Carradine shows up as a guy named Dad who runs a diner and may be some kind of cannibal? I couldn’t really tell. Whatever, he’s in and out of this movie in about five minutes of awkward talking over a big pot of roadkill stew.
Look, all of this is to say that the movie is bad. The script is poorly paced, and the dialogue is trash. Most of the actors ham it up, and the star, Ronald L. Marchini, tosses bad one-liners left and right every chance he gets. The makeup mainly consists of powdering people’s faces white, save for the Shao Kahn-wannabe, who for some reason gets a weird domino effect that looks like a black and white cookie. The one thing they did do is make the mutant character Snaker actually have a more reptilian nose, which he then tries to overact his way out of. The set design involves mostly empty rooms and industrial corridors, and I think about as much attention was paid to lighting as it was to good special effects.
Yet there are a couple of things that the movie does well. The first: it gives explanations for a few things that I know had to be budget cuts. Travis has a dog. That dog is in no action or fight scenes. Travis just explains that the dog runs away whenever there is trouble, which is great because they have a “plausible” explanation as to why they didn’t have to bother spending money on training. The dog mainly just shows up and gets petted. Second is vehicles, which are either stolen or the leads are forced away from and plan to collect later. Sure, the beat up cop car ends up blown up, but it was probably a week away from the scrapyard. But there is a motorcycle, and having it get “stolen” means you get your David Carradine cameo AND get to take it back early for a return on the rental fees. Smart thinking.
Most importantly though is what this movie is here to highlight, and that’s martial arts action, baby! Films like this were made to make a quick buck, because as much as we like to tell ourselves it’s about art, movies are about money. However, sometimes martial artists wanted to use film to showcase a particular style (examples include Bruce Lee’s original intentions for Game of Death and Jeet Kun Do or even Y. K. Kim trying to show Taekwondo in Miami Connection) or to showcase their personal skills. This film serves to highlight the latter.
Our supercop John Travis is played by Ron Marchini. You may not be familiar with Marchini’s name, but he’s considered one of the best karate tournament fighters the US has ever produced. At his peak, the guy was ranked number 1 and had won numerous major tournaments. Even Chuck Norris considered Marchini to be one of his greatest opponents. While his acting may be folksy, his technique is fantastic to watch, and even against cheesy bad actors, his punches, kicks, and throws are all a delight.
Of course, a great fighter needs a great opponent, and that comes in the form of a nuclear mutant in hockey pads, known only as the Champion. While I jest that he looks like Shao Kahn (or a bad Shredder, or hell, even a less fashionable bad take on Sho’Nuff, the Shogun of Harlem from The Last Dragon), he’s also someone not to be trifled with. The Champion was portrayed by Michael M. Foley, a man who spent nearly a decade as the US military’s Pacific region kickboxing champion. Sure, he’s made to shrug off blows in the arena sequences like they’re nothing to try and build up his badassery, but once Foley and Marchini have their legitimate final battle, it swiftly becomes the high point of the film. They’re acting, and not well, and one is in really goofy makeup, but two seasoned competitors are going at it with practiced precision and obvious skill and technique. This is my hog heaven, folks.
Karate Cop is actually the sequel to another film that Marchini starred in, Omega Cop, though you don’t need to see the first to watch the second. The plots seem to have little to do with each other beyond being post-apocalyptic and Marchini playing John Travis. In truth, if you were expecting coherency of plot, you’re already in the wrong section of the video rental store anyway.