AUGUST 3 VHS MOVIE REVIEW : EAST LA WARRIORS
A young man struggling to stay afloat in the violent ocean of Los Angeles gang life seeks out an ex-gang member to teach him the fighting arts. Meanwhile, a powerful drug dealer stokes the flames of tension between ethnic factions as backs are stabbed, traps are set, and suspenders are worn without any shirts beneath them.
Director: Addison Randall
Writers: Raymond Martino, Addison Randall
Cast: Kamar De Los Reyes, Tony Bravo, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, Jastereo Coviare, James Dalesandro, Sabino Villa Lobos, William Smith
At first glance, there’s no reason that a movie which places martial-arts in the world of Los Angeles gangbangers should work. Action movies with kickfighting heroes who detest the use of guns are commonplace, but no amount of hand-to-hand fighting skill can stop a random spray of bullets. Why bother trying to meld the two? The 1989 PM Entertainment film East L.A. Warriors dares to bridge these two disparate concepts. What emerges is a thoughtful social commentary where punching and kicking is offered as a alternate to the destructive trappings of extreme gun violence and fatal payback. Yes, someone does get shot in the end.
A recent drive-by shooting at a birthday party has left some dead and many injured. A local Chicano gang called Los Lobos is itching to take revenge on the guilty party, an African-American gang known as the Boppers. However, a gang hanger-on named Paulo (De Los Reyes) is trying to deter them from any quick decisions because his brother died in the shooting and he doesn’t want to see the violence escalate. Having not been “jumped in,” Paulo’s opinion means little and the Lobos’ second-in-command Hector (Villa Lobos) is angered by the suggestion that the act should go unpunished. The gang’s president, Miguel, barters a compromise and they agree that vengeance will be visited upon their enemies at “the Games.”
Organized by powerful local drug kingpin Chesare (Hilton-Jacobs), “the Games” are a modern-day fighting contest not unlike the gladiator competitions of ancient times. Though, instead of fighting to the death with swords or spears, gang members fight for the upper hand until a gun is randomly made available; whomever fetches it first gets to shoot his opponent. Instead of fighting outdoors in a grand coliseum, they fight in a boxing ring with the technicolor dance-club lighting system from Don Wilson’s Ring of Fire. The proceedings are marked by gimmicky call-and-response shenanigans between Chesare and the different groups, and the factions paint their faces up like Kabuki theater actors (if Asian), 1930s street mimes (if African-American), or jungle soldiers (if white). While the various outcomes guarantee nothing more than bragging rights to the gangs, the benefits to Chesare are obvious: thinning ranks mean more territory and more power.
Chesare’s notoriety and the increasing gang activities have caught the attention of Eddie Rodriguez (Dalesandro) of the LAPD. The detective wants to help end the gun violence between gangs but he lacks an inside man; anyone close enough to the action refuses to work with the police for fear of retribution. He soon finds a partner in Aurelio (Bravo), an aging former gangbanger. As a resident of the barrio, he’s reluctant to act as an informer but also sees the value of reforming oneself and denouncing the cycle of killing. He agrees only to help bring down Chesare, which suits Rodriguez just fine. However, the detective isn’t the only one looking to Aurelio for an assist.
While wearing the wrong colors in rival territory can get you shot in some places, Paulo is lucky to escape with only about half of a beatdown before a buff, mustachioed fighter in sweatpants comes to his assistance and sends his attackers scurrying. In the days to come, Paulo attempts to solicit the man for training, but is consistently rebuked and even told to get a gun to defend himself.
As reluctant fight gurus are want to do, Aurelio eventually buckles and agrees to train the undisciplined but willing Paulo. The training scenes are befitting of a film made in the post-Karate Kid era; Paulo learns martial arts primarily by holding burning incense or paint cans for extended periods of time, and getting hit in the stomach repeatedly. This training is so effective, in fact, that Paulo’s gang initiation into Los Lobos consists of him blocking punches from other gang members and striking his way to membership. Which is actually the complete opposite of getting “jumped in,” i.e. getting your ass stomped in gangspeak.
In his portrayal of the villainous Chesare, former Welcome Back, Kotter actor Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs is the best part of the movie. As Large William of The Gentlemen’s Guide to Midnite Cinema pointed out in a recent episode, Hilton-Jacobs wanders between a terrible Latin American accent and a half-hearted Caribbean accent in his performance. While nothing Chesare says is particularly memorable, it’s fun to guess which dialect he’ll use to deliver his lines.
Beyond ethnicity, Chesare’s sexual preference is equally ambiguous. While most drug kingpins would surround themselves with a harem of honies, Chesare can be found playing classical piano while wearing an open, polka-dot silk robe and getting a massage from one of his male helpers. His visit to the fine-dining restaurant where Paulo and Hector work as waiters is equally odd. Chesare accentuates a sizable cash tip by squeezing Hector’s face in an uncomfortably long embrace while smirking at him. All of this could add up to absolutely nothing but it was interesting to see an even mildly subversive characterization in this type of movie, at this point in time.
This film was just the second in director Addison Randall’s filmography and it shows. Flashback scenes are filmed in black-and-white and while this is a bit conventional, I can’t really knock that technique. The bigger issue was using the same actors to portray much younger versions of themselves and making no effort at all to make them look younger. Most directors would have told the cast members to -- I don’t know, shave? -- but Randall just puts bandanas on everyone and rolls film. In context this is a pretty egregious wardrobe error but the clothing is otherwise pretty excellent. Hilton-Jacobs rocks a slick all-white suit through most of the film and Kamar De Los Reyes is often found in a shirtless-but-for-suspenders ensemble. Pretty hilarious for an alleged gangbanger. Meanwhile, Tony Bravo runs around in nothing more than a white wifebeater and sweatpants. He was either the victim of a really shitty wardrobe department or made a conscious decision every day to roll out of bed and go to work in his PJs, Zuckerberg-style.
Aside from shootings, the action in the film is pretty much non-existent with the exception of the “Games” scene towards the end of the film. Even then, you’re not getting martial-arts contests so much as you’re getting a lot of posturing to the crowd and yelling in between random kicks and punches. The choreographers are also pretty liberal with the use of pro wrestling moves like clotheslines, cross body blocks, and even back-body drops. For you WWE Attitude-era fans, we also get an approximation of the first “People’s Elbow” in history.
The end credits deserve mention for two primary reasons: the amateurish quasi-Comic Sans font, and the epic song, “Living to Die.” With music and lyrics by director Addison Randall and actor Jastereo Coviare, the striking rock track is the best thing Trey Parker and Matt Stone never recorded.
East L.A. Warriors predates Boyz n the Hood. It came before Menace II Society. Juice, New Jack City, and Blood In Blood Out all followed in its footsteps. Sure -- all of the aforementioned are better films, but how many of them feature Freddie “Boom Boom” Washington pimping in a white suit or getting massages while playing piano? Where else can you find William Smith cashing a check as a restaurant manager and delivering lines with marbles in his mouth? Which films dare to propose fisticuffs as an adequate alternative to gun violence? None! So of you want a clumsy cinematic marriage of L.A. gang warfare and flimsy martial-arts philosophy, East L.A. Warriors can fill the gap.