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.