Even if "Ring of Steel" were a very bad film (not so) and failed to rise above the stigmas of DTV moviemaking (also not so), you'd still have to give it credit for simply existing. I mean, how many movies then and now concern themselves with swordfighting? Sure, there are a mess of movies featuring swordplay, but with the exceptions of Highlander and Eric Roberts' By the Sword, virtually no film has built its premise around the art of sword combat. Not only does "Ring of Steel" do this, but it manages to retain respect for the sport in the midst of a very fun and surprisingly competent mid-'90s action flick. If you like low-budget features from this era but are tired of repetitious kickboxing pictures, then this ought to be a pleasant departure from the norm.
The story: Alex Freyer (Robert Chapin, Dragon Fury) is an up-and-coming star in the fencing world when he accidentally slays an opponent on his way to the championships. Blackballed from the sport, Alex believes his career to be over when he's contacted by a nameless man in black (Joe Don Baker, The Silence of the Lambs) who offers to make him a star in the world of illegal underground swordfighting. Intrigued at first but repelled by the antics of the out-of-control champion, Alex attempts to leave the competition, but this proves more difficult and dangerous than he had anticipated.
Following his writing of and starring in this movie, Robert Chapin pursued a handful of small parts in small movies but would eventually settle down as a stuntman and visual effects artist for mainstream blockbusters. It's nice that he's still got a career, but it's also a shame that he could never follow up on anything as fun or physical as when he wielded a rapier and took on guys with broadswords, katanas, cutlasses, and sabers. Where his character is concerned, he makes the movie work without playing the dummy, but from the physical side of things, his work is even better. Credit also goes to master swordswoman Jan Bryant, who choreographed the numerous matches and also had a hand in the swashbuckling content of Army of Darkness, as well as to the awesome opponents Chapin has in Jim Pirri (Perfect Target), James Lew (Balance of Power), American Gladiator Deron McBee (Mortal Kombat: Annihilation), and Gary Kasper (Escape From Alaska) as the insane, katana-wielding champion.
The swordfighting is the rightful highlight, with at least nine cool encounters to show off various styles of fencing, but the acting isn't too shabby either. Chapin is respectable as a short-lived action hero and manages to build a surprisingly endearing on-screen relationship with fellow fencer Darlene Vogel ("Pacific Blue"), who later gets kidnapped to keep Alex in the tournament. Joe Don Baker proves versatile in his role: he walks a fine line between villain and benefactor, often coming off as despicable in one scene and saving someone's life in the next; kudos to him for making the very most of his part. Co-stars Jim Pirri and Gary Kasper didn't have too many large roles outside of this film, but prove steadfast in their portrayals. The only disappointing performance comes from beautiful villainess Carol Alt (Thunder in Paradise), who's responsible for some of the more illogical exchanges in the movie.
If the movie has a glaring fault, it's the relative shallowness that defies the cool fights and better-than-average acting: with a bit more gravity, "Ring of Steel" might've managed to snag the cult status that has unjustly eluded it thus far, because casual viewers won't necessarily keep too much of the film in mind after the credits roll. Short of needing a bit more "oomph" to go with its "ahh", the movie is one of top finds I've come across in my wadings through action flicks of the era, and I wholeheartedly suggest it to anyone willing to give something new a try.