Sunday, April 10, 2011

Enter "The Dragon"

Living in Hollywood (or, rather, in that hazy geographic region that considers itself Hollywood adjacent), I am accustomed to seeing movie folk in ordinary surroundings: Elijah Wood at my local Starbuck’s; Dustin Hoffman strolling on the Santa Monica Promenade; Ahnold the Governator practically everywhere. As for the children of the famous—or at least the near-famous—they’re almost impossible to avoid.

The other day, I went to work out at a branch of my favorite gym, and discovered Billy Blanks Jr. teaching a highly aerobic dance class. I made the obvious connection: this dynamic young man was the son of Billy Blanks, a martial arts champion who in the 1990s starred in action films with names like Showdown, Back in Action, and Talons of the Eagle.

So of course I thought back to my own years as a maker of martial arts epics. In 1989, Roger Corman realized that kickboxing movies were the Next Big Thing. The films of rising stars like Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme were cleaning up at the box office, and so Roger decided to add a kickboxer to his payroll. His discovery was Don “The Dragon” Wilson. Don, an amiable fellow with an exotic look (his mother was Japanese) happened to be a legitimate world kickboxing champion, but his acting experience was nil. Roger sent him to acting classes, in preparation for a starring role in Bloodfist (in which, by the way, the senior Billy Blanks played a featured role).

The script for Bloodfist was whipped out in a hurry by a young writer named Robert King. King had become a go-to writer for Corman following his success with a rather good killer cockroach movie, The Nest. In later years, he moved up in the world, crafting bigger budget films like Vertical Limit before hitting the jackpot as the co-creator (with his wife Michelle) of TV’s award-winning The Good Wife. But I suspect that at the time of Bloodfist Robert was somewhat lacking in inspiration. It took me years to realize that his story—about a young martial artist who returns to the ring to sleuth out the identity of his brother’s killer—was a near-total rip-off of a recent Van Damme vehicle, KickBoxer.

No matter. Don the Dragon went on to star in seven more Bloodfist films. In all of them he played earnest and tight-lipped young men, who spoke mostly with their fists (and their feet). In real life Don was animated and chatty. But his limited acting chops made it essential to cast him as the strong, silent type.


  1. I remember seeing the commercial for BLOODFIST years back. It briefly played at one theater nearby, but I didn't see it till it hit video. At that time, I sought out just about any martial arts movie and Don Wilson was a rare breed. A very nice guy in interviews and he was definitely a gifted fighter. Apparently he had a beef with Van Damme back then. Actually, several REAL martial artists had a beef with JCVD during those days.

    I'd have to dig out the magazine that talked about it, but Van Damme had been making some less than favorable comments so Wilson challenged him to a contest to which VD later declined. Don Wilson did an in-joke about it in one of his movies, RED SUN RISING (1994 I think).

    One scene near the end had Wilson's character approached by a guy dressed and looking very much like JCVD, doing the kicks, the whole spiel. Suddenly, Wilson catches one of those ballet kicks of his, hits him a few times than tosses the guy out of camera range. What made this even funnier was the ear to ear smile on Wilson's face as the guy flies off camera.

  2. I love hearing about Red Sun Rising, which was not a Concorde film. Interesting that it allowed Don to trade on his Asian background, and it also gave roles to some fine Asian actors. Don did tend to be irritated that actors like Van Damme were claiming martial arts titles they didn't have. It would be worth it to me to rent this movie just to see the smile on Don's face. Concorde films kept him so earnest and grim that he told me he'd sometimes come home from the set with his face aching because he'd had to frown all day!

  3. Interesting that you saw Billy Blanks Jr. leading a class at the gym! His father is not only a martial arts film star, but also the inventor of Tae Bo, a type of exercise that incorporates cardio and kickboxing moves. (This is one of the few exercise videos I've ever done.) The son is apparently the inventor of his own brand of exercise called Cardioke.

  4. Billy teaches a really lively class, with the help of his very spirited wife. Their students obviously love them. The whole hour had the vibe of some daytime TV show: lots of cheering and applause as individual class members got up to strut their stuff. I thought maybe they'd start giving away automobiles, but no . . .

  5. What a great post! I've never heard anything but kind words spoken of Don "The Dragon" Wilson - I'd quite like to meet him. I haven't seen that many of his movies as the kickboxing craze was one that never caught on with me. Billy Blanks Sr did turn up in nearly every one I did see, though!

  6. Don is absolutely a sweetheart, and a loving parent too. He had an adorable little son with his first wife and several kidlets with his second, Kathleen Karridene, whom I knew as a Concorde makeup person. I haven't seen them in a while, but like them both very much.