The Circuit (2002)
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I recently reviewed a film starring Gary Daniels, who started off his career as a poor man's Jean Claude Van Damme. It's hard to think it today (and those who aren't bad action hacks or DTV fans will be hard pressed to remember), but T.W.A.T. (there was a time) when, after the success of JCVD, a bunch of clones came out of the woodwork in shoddily produced DTV kickboxing/bad action yarns faster than you can say Michael Keaton's 'Multiplicity.' Some of these guys (like Daniels and Jahlal Merhi) started-and stayed- on the video screens of bad movie honks; while others (like Gruner and Daniel Bernhardt), started off initially in one or two small theatrical releases (Angel Town, Nemesis, Bloodsport II) before descending into the seventh circle of Dante's DTV hell. There were lots of them, but Oliver Gruner was technically the first. Anyway, 'the Circuit' stars Gruner as Dirk Longstreet (which is one of the worst names I've ever heard for a leading man), one tough SOB and the only fighter who ever escaped "the Circuit," an underground kumite run by a guy who looks like a tubbier version of Jason Bateman from 'Teen Wolf Too. Longstreet has moved on and lives a quiet, incognito life as a high school gym teacher, and gets his rocks off motivating troubled inner city youth by making them do one more lap or climbing gym ropes. His idyllic life is shattered when his old Circuit buddies- one of which is played by DTV legend Billy Drago (Lady Dragon I and II)- find out his location and develop a plan to lure Longstreet back into the world of underground fights and drugs, gambling, and murder. They plan to do this by using his brother as bate (a guy who, strangely enough, looks exactly like Gruner himself). Okay guys. This movie blows a big one. Think 'Bloodsport' meets 'Undisputed II' meets a whole lot of Nyquil. Just boring. And for a movie not only starring a poor man's Van Damme, but DIRECTED by one (Jahlal Merhi), the action and fight sequences are few and far between. Don't get me wrong, there IS action, but it's interspersed throughout the movie and sandwiched between sappy dialog and cliched plot devices. But what else should we expect from a movie of this caliber? 'Gruner IS a good martial artist, but, like so many of his other movies, he rarely gets to show off his foot and fist ways. ' When he does, it's not kickboxing but he uses some MMA leg locks and stuff to subdue his opponents- just like Michael Jae White did in 'Undisputed II.' When Gruner should be roundhouse kicking people in the face, he's busy carrying bags of concrete and driving beer bottles into the dirt with his bare palms as Drago eggs him on as his trainer. Speaking of Billy Drago. He was in stuff like this all the time when I was growing up on a steady diet of bad DTV movies. It seems like he was somewhere in the background of every Cynthia Rothrock movie I could get my hands on. His character of the Circuit-weary trainer looking for a way out is good, but it goes nowhere. The baddies: I've already mentioned tubby Jason Bateman. There's also another main bad guy who is kinda like a younger, poor man's Bolo Yeung/Chong Li from 'Bloodsport.' He didn't do the nose sniffing or man-tittie flexing, but he did do stupid break dancing moves after beating an opponent, and tried to make the same evil, comical faces you will see in 'Bloodsport.' The supporting cast is rounded out by some undercover British reporter chick trying to get a story on the circuit (she's also Gruner's booty call)- she contributes to the movie mostly through some naked,soaked booby action in a shower scene halfway through-, and Loren Avedon (No Retreat, No Surrender II and III and King of the Kickboxers) is totally wasted as a cop. Anyone who's seen a Jahlal Merhi movie- whether it be the 'Tiger Claws' movies, his work with Billy Blanks, or the other Gruner stuff- knows what to expect here. Merhi still thinks it's 1993, and that's good news for us bad action movie honks, but very bad news for everyone else who can't appreciate the finer points of Cynthia Rothrock or Brian Bosworth. And therein lies the sole charm of this movie for me, it's so 'Talons of the Eagle'/'Tiger Claws' you can taste it. But it's only a faint perfume of what coulda, shoulda, woulda, but didn't. I have to say that I enjoyed some of this, but only for what COULD HAVE BEEN on the screen- I also enjoyed imagining what happens when you get two guys who have blatantly made their career off of aping a now faded Belgian kickboxer and what their conversations must be like, but that's beside the point... While Gruner shoulda been showing off his 1993 kick-boxing moves, he spent most of the movie with a whistle around his neck, comforting his brother's pregnant wife, or driving beer bottles into the dirt with his bare palms on Billy Drago's ranch. SPOILER: He swears, when the bad guy is caught ("I'll just start another circuit in prison"), that he would take down the circuit anywhere, anytime. And that's the thing- there are THREE of these shitfests! I am trying to get a hold of parts two and three, but I fear for what will happen to what remains of my soul afterwards. It boggles the mind to think that Gruner turned down the Nemesis sequels, but agreed to star in three 'Circuit' movies. Geez.
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