Sword Of Honor

Director: Robert Tiffe         
Steven Vincent Leigh, Angelo Tiffe, Sophia Crawford

Sword Of Honor is an acceptable way to spend some of your free time. When I say "free time", I don't really mean time in your life where you are available to do anything that you please. The main emphasis is on the word "free" - in other words, time when you don't have to pay any amount of money to do whatever you choose. I don't think there's quite enough entertainment value in this movie to justify putting down several dollars to rent it. However, if you get the chance to watch it for free, such as when it's on TV, there is a good chance you'll find it helps pass the time well enough, especially the more undemanding you are feeling at the time.

The opening minutes seem to indicate that this is going to be a very entertaining movie, with the promise of being filled with action and some unintended laughs, all done with a superior technical slickness. Somewhere in the Mongolian Empire in 1367, we see some anonymous warrior riding through the countryside; though it was obviously not filmed in Mongolia, the stark scenery looks very striking, especially with snow lying on the ground and fog drifting in the background. The warrior then uses the title object to chop up some Mongolians in a fury of martial art techniques. Admittedly, this scene has absolutely no bearing on what happens later in the movie, but so what? Some utterly gratuitous killing can be very entertaining, especially with the kind of choreography on display here. Though the martial arts here and elsewhere in the movie are somewhat spoiled by the standard American editing technique of only showing one or two moves in most shots, the moves by the performers are high impact (and very fast) enough to give us satisfaction.

There's a big laugh when we suddenly fade to the familiar sight of Las Vegas at night, and we're told, "Las Vegas, Nevada...Present Day". Good job they did that - I might have otherwise expected Genghis Khan to step out of one of those casinos. So everything's been entertaining so far. Then we're given the standard convenience store robbery scene to introduce and show the character of the policeman hero of this particular actioner. In this instance, however, this rendition fails to do both. The scene is composed of frenziedly edited hand-held camera shots, many of which are shot in the poorest of light, so it's virtually impossible to tell what's going on. All I could tell is that out of a police car, two figures (we never see their faces clearly in the sequence) jump out and race after an entire gang, and get into martial arts battles with each member. Since we don't know who the cops and who are the gang members at any moment, we can't really get involved in any of these fights.

After that scene, things start to fall into place. Almost all of the next few minutes is devoted to Allan (Jeff Pruitt), a cop skilled in the martial arts who has decided to take early retirement in order to devote his life to teach the martial arts to kids, which he'll do with his sister Vicky (Crawford). He has an Asian-American partner, Johnny (Leigh), who is sad to see him go - at least I think so, for he hardly gets seen or heard here. Then during Allan's retirement party, the cops get a call about a gang of heavily armed thugs robbing a gallery in the city. Allan decides to go into action one more time, and during the shootout between the cops and the thugs, he and Johnny sneak into the gallery. The two of them manage to pick off a number of the thugs at first, but then tragedy strikes....Allan dies. Yes, Allan, even though up to this point the focus has been heavily on him. I guess I should have seen it coming with the cliché of the retiring cop, but it was still quite bewildering.

Okay, maybe now things will fall into place, now that the focus all of a sudden falls on Johnny. He now has three things he must do: (1) Retrieve the Sword Of Honor (which is what the thieves stole in the gallery), (2) Find who killed his partner and kill that guy, and (3) Get into a hot interracial romance with Vicky. That third item on his mental "to do" list is played out pretty much how you'd expect, and it is indeed pretty hot. No complaints there. It is what follows that I have complaints with. Most of the progress in Johnny's investigation comes from coincidence (seeing someone at a certain place at just the right moment, etc.), work by other people (asking a stereotypical junkie to dig up information for him, etc.), or from looking at the evidence left behind after a dumb move by the bad guys (sending in inept hit men to try and kill Johnny, etc.) - at least, when he is investigating the case at all.

Johnny's investigation is sporadic and moves very slowly. Midway through the investigation, he gets to do that tired old scene where the hero gets drunk and staggers through the streets while pathetic music plays on the soundtrack, which just wastes several minutes of the running time. There is also a lengthy sequence where two minor characters (both cops) get a tip on an upcoming bank robbery, leading to a wild car chase which ends with the robbers' car crashing into a warehouse and getting burned up when the warehouse mysteriously blows up before the car does. This scene has absolutely nothing to do with Johnny's investigation. The bad guys get into the act of wasting more of the viewer's time by inviting some Russian gangster over, feeding him with some expensive food, then taking him to a restaurant and feeding him some more expensive food...then killing him. These scenes are not only a waste of time, they actually distract from the plot, so much so that for much of the movie the sword and Johnny's quest for revenge are forgotten.

At least many of these scenes could have been worse. The acting by everyone is overall competent. Leigh himself is a little bland as the hero, but he does possess a likeability that makes his scenes painless to watch. His character actually seems to have been constructed to be more accessible to an audience; he's actually not perfect in the martial arts (Allan is shown to be more talented), and he does get knocked around a few times. That's not to say that the scenes where he fights the bad guys, or various muggers and rude people at the gym that pop up when there hasn't been a fight in ten minutes are not entertaining; though these fights are also one-two-cut edited, they are fast and brutal enough to satisfy one's craving for bone crunching. The fight at the climax, which should have been a show stopper, is surprisingly boring and extremely short - what the heck happened? There are a few action scenes of a different nature elsewhere in the movie (such as the gallery shootout) that are acceptable.

The most interesting aspect of the production is what appears to be a subtle yet bizarre sense of humor it has. I have to use "appears", because I honestly can't tell if the filmmakers were trying to be funny, or if these instances of humor are unintentional. After that aforementioned car chase, one of the cops looks at the burning car wreck and says, "Don't need backup now." The wealthy bad guys eat some nasty looking pizza at a really crummy pizzeria. Their wealthy leader shows off his bodyguard to a client by saying, "Look at my man! (To the bodyguard: "Take off your clothes!") See how beautiful he is!", then he's later seen teaching his girlfriend how to play a boogie-woogie song on the piano. It sounds like it's clearly tongue-in-cheek, but the way these scenes are directed and acted, I actually can't be sure - they are played out extremely straight. Whether intended to be funny or not, they are amusing all the same. And there are some definite unintended laughs, such as Allan's funeral. At the funeral, we hear a 21 gun salute, but we don't see it; in fact, except for a very close-up shot of the mourning Johnny and Vicky, we don't see any other mourners or the coffin.

If Sword Of Honor had been faster paced and more energetic, it probably would have been a must see movie. As it is right now, it's a bit too slow and meandering to actually pay money to see despite its notable qualities. That's why it's probably best to wait until it comes on cable or free TV, then tape it. With your remote control in your hand and your finger near the fast-forward button, you'll probably be entertained.

UPDATE: I heard from "Tiger", one of the participants of the movie. Here's what he had to say:

"Basically when I was living in Vegas in 1994, I got hired to work on Sword of Honor, it was my first big break as far as being more than just an extra. During the poker scene I walk into the room and say, "excuse me boss, there's someone here to see you", the boss says something, then I say, "I tried he won't go. Then there is a fight between myself, the other body guard, (played by Ken Dinkins, who by the way is my Ju Jitsu teacher) and the star Steven Leigh. I get my ass kicked, but at least I got to show a bit of my skill. I also doubled for Steven in one scene, but it was cut from the film. I am also one of the guys in the ski mask in the hallway and the one who gets kicked about six times and thrown to the floor by Jeff Pruitt. All in all it was a great experience I got to work with Koichi Sakamoto, who now does fight choreography for the Power Rangers and Jeff Pruitt who used to coordinate the stunts on Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

"My name in the credits is listed by my real name, (twice), which I don't tell anymore. I now go by Tiger and you can visit and I thank you for your interest."

UPDATE 2: Apparently sometime after getting that letter, Tiger did some questionable things. Click the above links to get an update.

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See also: Angel Of Fury, Best Of The Best 4, Drive