"Shootfighter" is among those movies included in a short list of films - among No Retreat, No Surrender, The King of the Kickboxers, and others - that are universally venerated among martial arts fans but that few folks have actually seen. Usually the films on this list live up to their legend and are worth paying the chunk of change they tend to go for nowadays, but in the case of this karate spectacle that mixes hand-to-hand combat with weapons, I'm not entirely convinced I got my money's worth. Sure, the fighting beats the crud out of many a modern Steven Seagal or Van Damme flick and there's a lot to be said for a film that accumulates such a large roster of legitimate kung fu talent, but as far as dynamism, utilization of resources, and actual fighting is concerned, I have seen better.
The story: Nick (Michael Bernardo, "WMAC Masters") and Ruben (William Zabka, High Voltage) are two karate-practicing buddies who misguidedly fall into the world of illegal shootfighting via an underground tournament concocted by the evil Mr. Lee (Martin Kove, The Karate Kid). Stuck in a circuit where the only way out is as champion or corpse, it's up to their teacher Shingo (Bolo Yeung, Bloodsport) to save them...but doing so would involve facing the man who killed his best friend.
On the surface, "Shootfighter" appears to be a superior low-budget actioneer: the acting isn't great but is far from sucking, the premise ties into modern society's obsession with mixed martial arts, and - my goodness! - just look at that roster of fighters! In addition to Yeung, Kove, Bernardo, and Zabka, there's Hakim Alston and Chris Casamassa (Mortal Kombat), John Barrett (American Kickboxer 1), Erik Betts ("WMAC Masters"), Thunderwolf (Bloodmatch), Kisu (Dragon Fire)...and that's just considering the fighters that are given an introduction. Most of the guys are legitimate kung fu practitioners and could probably have put on the same show in real life as they did in the movie, but what's more impressive is their mastery of weapons: quarterstaffs, rattan sticks, sickles, spears, nunchukas, and swords are called forth to increase the level of violence, which occasionally peaks at gory levels which include a shredded throat, a snapped forearm, and a ripped-out heart.
With that being said, consider that the movie works better as a cumulative spectacle than as a collection of them. Of the 'round fifteen fights, no single one stands out in particular (with the possible exception of a weapons encounter featuring Kazja Patschull), due to the brawls being either too short, featuring too many pauses between the action, and/or the insistence on implied "realism" that take away much of the ebb and flow of the encounters. There are plenty of cool moves but these are generally limited to one or two per fight, and it's harder to appreciate these on their own than as of a well-rounded battle. Also, seeing as he's more or less the headlining name among the cast, it's particularly disappointing that Bolo Yeung has two of the worst fights of the movie, the second against Martin Kove.
During the end credits, Yeung is shown practicing tai chi on a beach, and this alone is prettier and more impressive than almost any fight in the movie as far as I'm concerned. When it comes to a film like this, all that matters is the action: simplistic storylines and bad acting can be forgiven if the kicks and punches are awesome, but even though this film was definitely an inspired feat, it has a lot to learn about just letting its fighters duke it out to the end. Give it a buy if you're an enthusiast, but otherwise, mainstream Hollywood has already surpassed "Shootfighter."