If a sto­ry worked once, it will work again.  Look at the world of remakes, reboots and reimag­in­ings that dom­i­nate pop­u­lar cin­e­ma today and you’ll see that plen­ty of exec­u­tives believe in this show­biz prin­ci­ple.  However, this strat­e­gy is old as Hollywood itself and has been fol­lowed by every­one from the major stu­dios to the pover­ty row guys.

Thus, it should be no sur­prise that Roger Corman was a pret­ty strong believ­er in this prin­ci­ple.  Perhaps the most famous exam­ple of Corman going remake-crazy is the case of T.N.T. Jackson.  It was a hit for him the first time so he would repeat it twice over the next few decades: the basic premise was remade in 1981 as Firecracker and once again in 1992 as Angel Fist.  Corman even worked with the same direc­tor on each film, leg­endary Filipino schlock auteur Cirio Santiago.  Firecracker is prob­a­bly the best of its incar­na­tions, match­ing the right amounts of sleaze and action to the best hero­ine of this unin­ten­tion­al tril­o­gy.

The hero­ine of Firecracker is Susanne Carter (Jillian Kesner), an American mar­tial arts instruc­tor who goes to the Phillippines to find her miss­ing sis­ter.  She dis­cov­ers her sis­ter was snoop­ing around a place called the Arena where the own­er, Erik (Ken Metcalfe), stages fights to the death for a rau­cous, gam­bling clien­tele.  Erik also deals drugs with the help of star fight­er Chuck Donner (Darby Hinton) and con­nec­tion Grip (Vic Diaz).  Susanne cozies up to Chuck, using her fight­ing skills to impress him and Erik as she tries to learn more about the oper­a­tion.  Lots of fight­ing ensues, includ­ing the expect­ed TNT Jackson-style top­less bout, as the film build towards a trag­ic, paint-the-are­na-red finale.

The end result is typ­i­cal no-frills exploita­tion fare in the Santiago tra­di­tion but it’s an improve­ment upon TNT Jackson in sev­er­al ways.  The script, writ­ten by Santiago with star Metcalfe, is tidier in its plot­ting than its mod­el and has a more like­able hero­ine in Susanne.  He actu­al­ly sprung for decent fight chore­og­ra­phy this time, so the fights play much bet­ter than the campy jump­ing-around in its pre­de­ces­sor (the fight dou­ble for our hero­ine hasn’t improved much, though).  Santiago also makes bet­ter use of the Phillippines here, get­ting max­i­mum mileage out of its scenic beau­ty.

The cast is also an improve­ment in many ways.  Kesner, known to b-movie fans as wife of cin­e­matog­ra­pher Gary Graver, offers a solid per­for­mance and gives her all in the fight sequences.  Hinton, a for­mer Greydon Clark film reg­u­lar, also acquits him­self nice­ly as a fight­er.  Metcalfe is as stiff as he was in TNT Jackson but the vil­lain­ous side of things ben­e­fits from the endear­ing­ly ham­my pres­ence of Diaz (his reac­tion to a sur­prise involv­ing a snake is film’s fun­ni­est moment).

Finally, the guid­ing hand of Corman plays a key role here in mak­ing the sleaze/exploitation ele­ment work.  He felt Kesner’s sex­i­ness wasn’t exploit­ed enough when he saw the film’s first cut so he got future Forbidden World direc­tor Allan Holzman to add in a pair of unfor­get­table new sce­nes.  The first is a skir­mish between Kesner and a pair of thugs that finds her stripped down to panties and noth­ing else for the final face-off, thus ensur­ing the film’s Siamese twin con­nec­tion to TNT Jackson.  The oth­er is a delight­ful­ly over­heat­ed sex scene between Kesner and Hinton that involves them cut­ting off each other’s cloth­ing with knives as fore­play.  Firecracker would have decent­ly enter­tain­ing with­out the­se sce­nes but their pres­ence makes it a “trashy movie night” must-see.

In short, Firecracker wins the day as the best of Corman/Santiago “top­less kung fu” tril­o­gy because it serves up the best of what Santiago could do and ben­e­fits from the added sleazy sparkle of the Corman/New World touch.  If you can’t make up your mind between pick­ing a kung fu flick or a sex­ploita­tion flick for your view­ing plea­sure, this film will elim­i­nate the need for that kind of deci­sion.

Lethal Ladies Collection [Triple Feature]

Lethal Ladies Collection [Triple Feature]

Roger Corman’s Cult Classics: Lethal Ladies Collection [Triple Feature]      Female karate cham­pi­on Susanne Carter (Jillian Kesner) goes to the Philippines to look for her sis­ter who has dis­ap­peared. She stum­bles upon a drug cartel and a tour­na­ment of no-holds-barred fights to the death in the action-packed Firecracker. Directed by gen­re spe­cial­ist Cirio H. Santiago (TNT Jackson) and costar­ring Vic Diaz (The Big Bird Cage) and Darby Hilton (Malibu Express).“They call me TNT,” mar­tial arts expert Diana Jackson (Jeanne Bell) announces upon her arrival in Hong Kong to look for her miss­ing broth­er. From there, she heads smack into what is known as the city’s worst area, a no-man’s-land that is a haven for drug deal­ers, thieves and killers. TNT does not know that her broth­er has been bru­tal­ly mur­dered by Charlie (Stan Shaw), an American who has set­tled in Hong Kong and is bent on inch­ing his way to the top of the city’s drug-smug­gling trade. But he has no idea what he’s up again­st when he tan­gles with dyna­mite in TNT Jackson!Contract killer Samantha Fox (Cheri Caffaro) accepts a mis­sion to kill a group of gang­sters in the Philippines, but prob­lems arise when she falls for the Manila detec­tive inves­ti­gat­ing the mur­ders. Director Don Schain, who was mar­ried to Caffaro, direct­ed her in sev­er­al films pri­or to Too Hot To Handle, includ­ing Ginger, Girls Are For Loving and The Abductors.