- Jacob Knight
Shooting Blanks: Back In Action ('94) + Tough and Deadly ('95)
Updated: Jan 12, 2022
"Ain't life a bitch?"
That's the final line uttered by star running back Billy Cole (Billy Blanks) before he takes the same pistol he just used to clear a path for a game-changing touchdown to blow his own fucking brains out in the end zone. It's a bleak, bombastically nihilistic start to Tony Scott and Shane Black's The Last Boy Scout (1991), which sees the ace Top Gun (1986) shooter and Lethal Weapon (1987) whiz kid screenwriter tackling the most American of institutions: the National Football League (which, naturally, is going by another name because the NFL wanted nothing to do with the movie).
While we can certainly debate whether or not former Secret Service Agent-cum-hangdog private detective Joe Hallenbeck is the most intriguing performance of Bruce Willis' movie star career (even more so than everybody's favorite boozy cop having a bad day, John McClane), it seems like a no-brainer that Cole was the most memorable big screen appearance by martial artist Billy Blanks, despite it only lasting a few minutes. Yes, that's the same Billy Blanks who would go on to found the nigh omnipresent Tae Bo fitness video line, which found him punching and kicking his way into living rooms around the globe.
Blanks' too short movie career wasn't for lack of trying. During the '90s, the taekwondo master became a DTV legend, ascending from bit parts in China O'Brien II (1990) and Joel Silver productions, to starring in a string of VHS destruction fests such as TC 2000 (1993). A physical specimen, the former United States Karate Team champion became prolific during the early '90s, mostly due to a chance encounter he had on the set of Driving Force (1989) while acting as bodyguard and personal trainer to Catherine Bach (a/k/a Daisy Duke from The Dukes of Hazzard). Suddenly, Blanks found himself playing a villain in the Philippine-shot picture, an opportunity that was a dream come true for a poor kid who grew up loving The Green Hornet.
Before long, Blanks was throwing down with Don "The Dragon" Wilson in Bloodfist (1989) and even appeared alongside Sylvester Stallone in Tango & Cash (1989). After working with Sly, the smaller parts kept rolling in, as he'd even make an appearance with Jean-Claude Van Damme in Lionheart (1990) before graduating to his first starring role in Talons of the Eagle (1992), where he'd mix it up with Jalal Merhi. Now, Blanks' square jaw and unfortunate hairline were front and center on the shelves of local mom and pop video stores, his Bruce Lee-mimicking screech ready to pierce your ears every time he landed a brawl-ending blow.
Yet Blanks' apex would arrive in the form of back-to-back buddy actioners from disreputable kings of video sleaze, Shapiro-Glickenhaus Entertainment. The same shingle that was responsible for Frank Henenlotter's horror sex-comedy masterpiece Frankenhooker (1990) had teamed with MCA/Universal in order to bring their low-rent violent diversions (such as one of its namesake's Chris Walken 'Nam vet men on a mission saga, McBain ) to a much wider audience. In short, it was the sort of grandeur-grabbing power move that often does (and did) help lead to many an exploitation shingle's demise.
But not before SGE unleashed both Back In Action (1994) and Tough & Deadly (1995) upon Blockbuster card holders and seasoned crate diggers alike. Matching Blanks' knack for gravity-defying kicks was 'Rowdy' Roddy Piper - the Canadian wrestling heartthrob who hung up his spandex in search of an acting career after battling humanoid frogs in Hell Comes to Frogtown, and ridding the world of consumerist alien slave masters in John Carpenter's They Live (both 1988). Smashing bad guys (and each other) through every piece of chintzy furniture the set designers could cobble together, Piper and Blanks became an action pairing for the ages; a thrilling tag team of brute strength and acrobatic dexterity that battled their way through three collective hours of sensational cheap thrills.
Attempting to recount the plot of (the frankly incongruously named) Back In Action is a fool's errand. Not so much because it's convoluted, but really due to the fact that there isn't much story to speak of in the first place. Los Angeles (by-way-of-Toronto) Detective Frank Rossi (the anti-Italo Piper, struggling to keep his vowels in check) is staking out a graveyard-set drug deal being perpetrated by Chakka (Matt Birman), the mini-katana wielding right hand to acupuncture addicted New Age crime lord, Kasajian (Nigel Bennett). Along for the ride is Tara (Kai Soremuken), the pretty girlfriend of low-level henchman Gantry (Damon D'Oliveira), who waits in the car for cocaine bricks to be exchanged like the good little trophy she is.
Naturally, shit goes down. Billy (Blanks, playing one of many characters in his career gifted with his real first name) becomes an agent of chaos, as the former Special Ops Beret infiltrates this blatant violation of Canux drug laws and basically just kills everyone in his path. Automatic weapons are fired. Bodies are shredded. Rossi's partner (Barry Blake) is gutted by the peddling swordsman right in front of the rogue cop. Meanwhile, Gantry and Tara flee the scene, the petty thug now tasked with killing his girlfriend, the only witness to the crime - a mission he simply cannot complete. Before long, Billy is tearing his way through the city to find Tara, the little sister he always swore to protect, while Detective Rossi rushes to avenge his slain comrade and best friend.
OK, so there's a little more plot than I may of let on, but it really all acts as nothing more than a delivery system for competently choreographed brawls to break out every seven (or so) minutes. As Billy, Blanks is a heat seeking missile, jump-kicking his way through smoky bars and tacky loft apartments, hoping to steal his sister back before the numerous (sometimes spandex-attired) toughs Kasajian has dispatched do. Simultaneously, Piper brings the same swollen physicality he did to the professional wrestling ring, as an early throw down between Rossi and this military trained nightmare demonstrates that, while Blanks might have been freakishly fit, the blonde Saskatchewan sensation still packed dynamite in his fists. Worlds don't just collide. They fucking detonate.
Which is good because neither Blanks nor Piper really seem to be having a whole lot of fun during the dramatic scenes (which are, thankfully, very few and far between). Despite all of his experience leading up to this handful of leading roles, Blanks still feels like nothing more than a walking death machine, attempting to replicate what it thinks human emotion looks like; a Black T-800, if you will. On the other side of the law, Piper loses the pseudo John Wayne stoicism Carpenter coaxed out of him, in favor of a half-assed Martin Riggs impersonation. Sure, he's somewhat believable as a love interest/confidant of gorgeously scuzzy reporter Helen Lewinsky (X-Files dreamboat Bobbie Phillips), but that's mainly because he still looks like Roddy Piper. Who wouldn't be attracted to this maple syrup drizzled Thor?
Nevertheless, it's tough to care about things like "drama" or "human connection" when Blanks and Piper are unleashed as pure physical performers. Blanks, in particular, is having the time of his life, split-kicking in slow-mo before Piper suplexes another anonymous henchman through a barroom table. Not to venture too far into the realm of hyperbole, but watching Piper choke slam a dude before Blanks does a forward flip while firing two Uzis at the same time is basically the reason that Thomas Edison invented the movie camera.
Tough & Deadly is more of the same, only the ludicrousness is amped to about fifteen. Blanks plays John Portland, an amnesia-riddled CIA man who is rescued by Piper's grizzled bounty hunter/private detective, Elmo Freech (side note: holy shit, that name), after the Agency mole and his potential kidnappers go over the side of a cliff. As an added bonus, longtime Australian stunt player Richard Norton - who's appeared in everything from Gymkata (1985) to Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) - is tossed into the mix as the nefarious Agent Norton, just because you, the discerning action fan, deserve it.
What Elmo doesn't know is that he's about to be hunted by a legion of government assassins, as the CIA isn't about to let one of their most dangerous assets go without a fight.Turns out, Portland is actually Quicksilver, a super agent without a home or true identity after an assassination attempt in France, and the sneering, shadowy big wigs (including character actor James Karen) want their own personal Jason Bourne neutralized before he remembers all that secret agent shit that could jeopardize their clandestine operations.
Now, before Tough & Deadly can go all Robert Ludlum on our asses, Freech recruits his new badass BFF to bust a local drug ring he's always had a hard on for (because if you've got a weapon like this at your disposal, why not use it?). This lends the film a more Shane Black knock-off vibe than its predecessor, as we spend a good chunk of Tough & Deadly's comedic second act just sort of hanging out with these two lugs, as Elmo marvels at Portland's freakish physical abilities, and John stares into the mirror, trying to figure out just what the hell "Quicksilver" means to him. All the while, a bunch of suits drive around town asking randos if they've seen a "big black guy", which makes you wonder how much research any of the filmmakers actually put into what resources the CIA have at their disposal.
Believe it or not, Tough & Deadly might actually have more action than Back In Action, as instead of every seven minutes, a fight seems to break out every five. For those keeping track, that's a lot of fighting, as various stunt guys are tossed through the air, screaming their lungs out before they hit the hard concrete. And due to this being an unofficial sequel of sorts, Blanks and Piper seem much more comfortable sharing the frame together, except when it comes time to choose between country and rap music (look, nobody accused these movies of being politically correct).
So, why didn't we get an entire series of Blanks/Piper pairings? That's a good question. For starters, both movies arrived at the literal end of the Shapiro-Glickenhaus empire, as the company disbanded in '96, following numerous financial debacles (just read up on the South African fiasco of Red Scorpion ['88] for more) and the departure of founding member, Leonard Shapiro. It also didn't help that Piper was reportedly bored by acting at this point in his career, deciding to continue his on-again-off-again relationship with the WWF by becoming its President the very same year SGE dissolved (replacing Gorilla Monsoon, who had to step down from the chair following a sneak attack by Vader).
As for Blanks, there'd only be a pair of starring roles to follow (in Expect No Mercy  and Balance of Power ) before he retreated from the screen to become a fitness mogul. Sure, he'd show up again in bit parts here and there (including a cameo in Adam Sandler's bonkers Jack & Jill ), but his years as an action star sadly ended in the mid-'90s. Perhaps Blanks arrived too late in an era of freakishly muscled screen fighters, or his impressive skills just weren't marketed the right way (or maybe he was market corrected by Wesley Snipes), but at least we got these two absolute scorchers out of the deal. And upon Piper's death in 2015, Blanks reflected on his partnership with the bagpipe-scored bruiser by simply saying, "he was an inspiration. One of the hardest working men I'd ever met."
Can't think of a better eulogy than that.
Jacob Knight is the Editor-In-Chief and co-founder of Secret Handshake.