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A review of "Heatseeker" (1995)

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

One part Robocop, one part Real Steel, one part Arena, and two parts BloodsportHeatseeker is a big load of cheesy fun.  It's got some unintentional laughs, some enjoyable (if poorly implemented) ideas, and the right amount of energy to carry you through its manageable runtime and terrible kickboxing scenes.  Watching this movie really nails that feeling you'd get when you picked something out at random at the back of a video store, then came home and realized you stumbled onto an obscure treasure.

My Rating: 4 / 5 (Novice Bad Movie)

The Part Where I Summarize the Plot

Thank God for second chances!  After the tedium of Hawk's Vengeance, I was ready to completely write off the filmography of Mr. Gary Daniels.  But Heatseeker proves that, in the right hands, his wooden personality can actually be outmatched by his ability to punch things.

But we're flipping it a bit.  Unlike Hawk's Vengeance, Daniels is not the hero of this week's Holy Grail.  That honor goes instead to Keith Cooke, another almost-was action star, who fills the role of the improbably named "Chance O'Brien."

Chance is history's greatest kickboxer.  We are told this by various people during the film, including reporters, announcers, competitors, fans, and the villain.  So, let's just get that out of they way.  Chance is the best.

The movie opens in the middle of the World Heavyweight Championship bout between Chance and his rival, Xao (Daniels).  But let's not forget... Chance is the best.  He knocks out Xao before the credits roll.

Now, you might be wondering if this is a poor way to introduce a character.  Many movies - in fact, the vast majority of them - introduce their heroes as being flawed or struggling to give the audience a relatable conflict.  Even characters with money, power, and opportunity also have some kind of weakness to give us a stake and some suspense, right?  So what do you do when your movie opens with the hero already being the very best ever at his given profession?

You... kinda just pretend that he isn't.  Keep that in your back pocket while we hit the rest of the story notes here.

We move on to some visuals letting us know that Xao is getting robotic implants to make him a better fighter.  Then we transition into a boardroom meeting at Sianon Corporation, a robotics manufacturer, where we learn that robot implants are actually pretty common amongst fighters; in the world of the future, it is rare to find any combatants that are 100% human.  In fact, it's so common that most matches have to regulate their competitors by putting a limit on the number of implants you can have - no more than 10% of your body, in most cases.  Cybernetics (which the movie frequently calls "cybergenics," but whatever) is a booming industry.

For Tung, an executive of Sianon, sales just aren't good enough.  He proposes that Sianon host a kickboxing tournament to use as a marketing opportunity.  They'll up the limit from 10% to a whopping 50%.  Competitors that are up to half-robot will battle to the death in the ring, and the whole world will get to see which robot parts are tough enough to stand up to the ultimate test.

It's actually a great idea, and this is where I knew I would really have a great time with Heatseeker.  It's one thing to tell me that you're making a movie about cybernetic kickboxers.  That's enough to win me over.  (Hell, I was even sold on just plain college kickboxers.)  But when you tell me that your cybernetic kickboxer movie is a springboard for poorly-veiled satire on corporate overlords?  Now I want to make an evening out of it.

Tung takes it a step further by sponsoring Xao as their representative in the match.  All he needs to do next is get Chance O'Brien, famous for being a 100% human fighter, to compete.  The idea is that if Xao can beat Chance using Sianon parts, then obviously their product is enough to make all the difference, and suddenly they'll have the most profits ever.

There's just one problem: Chance doesn't want to compete.  He wants to retire and get married.

Y'see, Chance has actually been dating his trainer, Jo, for a couple of years now.  Apparently his love for her gives him strength in the ring - you know how that is, right?  That's why all the other heavyweights in MMA matches are always turning to their corner and making kissy faces?  You see it all the time.  Anyway, Chance and Jo announce their engagement and departure from the world of competitive fighting at a press conference, where they also publicly humiliate Tung by telling him they're not interested in his little robot match.

Naturally, Tung responds by kidnapping Jo and threatening to kill her unless Chance competes.  This is all in the first ten minutes, by the way.

With no options - or at least, I assume he has no options; we never see him talk to the authorities or anything - Chance flies to Manila to officially enter the contest.  Then there's a completely unrelated scene that goes on for way longer than it should in which he's mugged, knocked unconscious, and stripped naked, and then has to run through the streets bare-assed to get to a ferry before it leaves for the tournament - but after all that nonsense, we enter the kumite phase of the movie.

A brief aside about the tournament: most competitive fighting movies like this make a big deal about the location of the match.  In Bloodsport, there were long, exploratory shots of Kowloon Walled City.  In Enter the Dragon, there were sweeping panoramas of Han's island.  Even Mortal Kombat, a movie that doesn't know how to introduce characters before killing them off, had a pre-tournament feast to give you some local flavor.

Heatseeker doesn't do any of that.  As far as I can tell, the only location we get for the fight is "Manila."  Just... all of Manila.  The implication is that this is how the average Filipino goes about their day, I guess.  You know... you wake up, you go to work, you stop at a store to pick up groceries on your way home, maybe you pop into the Deathblood Auditorium for a quick match, and then you have dinner and go to bed.  Can any readers from the Philippines confirm?

Anyway.  Chance briefly meets a few of the other competitors, and some of them even seem like they might be important.  But don't you believe it.  The only other character in this sequence who's even remotely noteworthy is a business dude named Bradford who is entering the tournament as his own sponsor.  Bradford is the obligatory tournament buddy character who has to show up right around now, and I'd like to tell you that he's got some interesting stuff to do - but he doesn't, really.  I do think it's clever that he's an actual corporate executive who is literally here to smash his competition, but he pretty much is a non-entity.

(Technically there's a subplot involving him and Tung.  Then again, technically subplots are supposed to have an effect on the outcome of a movie, so we can safely ignore it.)

While the tournament is getting underway, Chance tracks down where Jo is being held and tries to rescue her.  Unfortunately, he's stopped by Tung's goons before he can actually set her free.  This is also when Tung reveals he's implanted Jo with a mind control / torture chip.  The specific mechanics of the chip are never fully explained - the mind control part comes across clearly in the half dozen scenes in which Tung pushes a button and Jo freezes in place, but then there's also a couple of random moments where he pushes a button and she starts writhing and screaming as if in pain.

Unexpected nudity alert!  For those of you who may be planning to watch this at work or something and who are wondering, "Are there any gratuitous parts where a woman's bare tits make it to center frame while she makes strange moaning sounds that could possibly be misinterpreted as an orgasm?", the answer is "Yes."

The bottom line is that if Chance tries any more business with Jo, Tung will kill her - or worse.  So, there's nothing left to do now but fight in the Robot Tournament.  Time to go to the ring!

Okay!  You ready?  You pumped?  We've been talking all movie long about this kick-ass half-robot, half-man ass-whomping tourney, and we're finally here!


Sadly, this is where the movie loses some steam.  The actors and stuntmen all know how to fight, and the martial arts you get to see are actually decent, even if filmed cheaply.  But the problem is the director doesn't know how to sell a fight.  There's a lot of strange cuts and fades that take most of the momentum out of the various match-ups.  For example, somebody will connect with a kick and the other guy will go down, and then the movie will cross-dissolve to some other random punch.  Instead of feeling like a rich ballet of violence, it just feels like the interstitial replays you see when a basketball game goes to commercial.

Another problem is the Announcer.  There's a persistent voice that basically just ends up narrating everything you see on the screen and recapping the plot for the last forty minutes or so.  I get that this is how actual sports commentating goes, but in a movie it wears your patience thin kinda quickly.

That's not to say that these scenes aren't any fun at all.  You get some cheesy robot effects whenever somebody dies - usually because a piece of their implant pokes out through their skin, or occasionally because their robot skulls explode.  Those moments are enjoyable.  And there's also some fun bits where the announcer will touch on the corporate aspect of the whole affair - "Oh, no, Chen is down!  Globo-Tech's stock is plummeting!"  I enjoyed that stuff most of all, which may or may not be problematic depending on what you want from a movie about robo-fighting.

These scenes are intercut with the continuing misadventures of Jo, who is being forced into a bizarre love affair with Xao.  It's not sex - I don't think.  (Well, kinda it is, but not the main part of it.)  Tung has this crazy theory that the reason Chance was a great fighter was because he had Jo's love to support him.  Ergo, to make Xao better, he also needs to have "love" from Jo.  So this makes Heatseeker the only movie I've ever seen where the villain tries to extort emotional rather than physical affection out of his helpless victim.

There's also an occasional aside or interjection that just plain doesn't make sense.  For example, there's a really funny cut away from one fight where we see Chance and Bradford going out for a jog.  They have a break in their run where Bradford spews out a lot of back story - "I did some illegal stuff and my father took the fall for it.  I'll never forgive myself." - and Chance nods in empathy.  Then we cut to... another fight.  Like, why even bother trying to have any kind of gravitas, Heatseeker?  It's like fading out from a scene in an office, fading in to an exterior shot of the office, and then cutting right back to the office scene again.  (Which, incidentally, also happens in this movie.)

Anyway.  Eventually it leads up to the final fight between Chance and Xao.  They duke it out for awhile until Chance gets the upper hand.  Then, in very quick succession, Tung pulls a gun on Jo, Xao pulls a gun on Tung, Xao and Tung and Tung's random assistant who occasionally shows up all get shot, and Jo and Chance leave.

But not before he gives a victory pose to the audience.  Because Chance is the best.

The Part About Stakes

I kinda loved this movie.  It's so stupid that you can't help but follow it along right over a cliff.  It's really one of the better kinds of bad movies out there - almost as much fun as Miami Connection or Bloodsport, the model it was obviously following.

But there is one major flaw that holds it back, even when you're trying to watch it ironically.  And that's Chance's superstardom.  Remember back a billion paragraphs ago when I said that it's weird to open the movie with Chance already being the best fighter?  That really deflates the rest of the movie.

The thing is, when you open your movie with the Good Guy beating the Bad Guy, you've already established that the Good Guy is stronger.  So you're not really changing anything by having him beat the Bad Guy a second time.  Or, to put it another way: you know why they call them story "arcs?"  It's because the tension actually goes up and down - like an arc.  The conflict between Chance and Xao is just a straight line, but somewhere between the two endpoints there happen to be one or two robot fists.

It would be so much more fun if Chance was the one who lost the fight at the beginning.  Or maybe the roles are reversed; maybe Xao could be the good guy, and he discovers that Chance has had illegal robot implants all along, and that's why he's won all his fights, so now Xao has to summon his underdog strength and Sianon parts to win the final match.

Why not just get rid of all the "man vs machine" crap and just embrace the robot parts altogether?  Go the Real Steel way and set it up so that Chance is just starting out, but he can only afford the crappiest robot parts.  But since he's got spirit, he wins a lot of matches, anyway, and gradually gets better and better upgrades until he forgets why he was in the sport in the first place and suffers a terrible defeat - not enough to knock him out of the running, but enough to make him question his abilities.  So he goes to nurse his wounds, gets some Love Training from Jo, and re-installs the crappy implants that he started out with.  Then he has his final fight with Xao, who's been fitted with the finest implants money can buy, and you have an epic robot-man blowout with an actual underdog.  That's a movie.

Come to think of it, Heatseeker is overdue for a remake.  Yo, Hollywood!  Take the plot I just gave you and get cracking on this.

The Part About Shitty Robots

There's kind of an elephant in the room with this review so far, and that's the quality of the robot implants.  I've skirted around this so far, but I'd be remiss if I didn't touch on it.

The robot implants of Heatseeker are... well... they're utter crap.

First of all, there's the obvious fact that Chance wins the tournament without any implants, so you can pretty clearly see they don't actually give anybody that much of an edge.  Even Xao, the guy who came closest to beating Chance as a full human, didn't gain any advantage by shoving metal scraps under his skin.

But more than that, they don't actually seem to do anything.  Other than give you weird blue eyes.

If somebody tells you you're going to fight a trained kickboxer with robotic implants, the correct response is to crap your pants.  How could you possibly compete?  You can imagine all the upgrades they'd have: fingers that can crush solid steel to a wafer-thin disc in a matter of seconds, bionic leg thrusters that can kick with the force of a jet engine, laser-guided punches, hyper-speed, boundless energy - maybe even the power of flight.

But that's not the case with these implants.  The fighters don't do anything that looks superhuman or even particularly above-average-human.  There aren't any scenes where they get punched in the chest, you hear a loud "Clink!" and then they just laugh.  Nobody crushes anybody's neck with their bare hands or rips off a limb or does crazy acrobatics or anything terrifying.  They just fight.

In fact, they might even be weaker than normal humans.  There's one scene where Chance punches a competitor's throat, revealing that he actually had an illegal robot neck the whole time.  But Chance snaps it in half!  What the hell good is a robot neck that some asshole can go and snap with a well-placed punch?  I'm pretty sure you can't do that with a regular meat neck.  Not that easily, anyway.

In this world, cybernetics is such a load of crap that even the general public laughs in Tung's face when he announces at the beginning of the movie that he's having a Robot Tournament.  The villain of the movie is laughed into retreat before his plot gets underway - that's how shitty robots are in the Heatseeker universe.

Still a fun movie, though.

Where You Can Watch

Heatseeker is currently streaming on Netflix, or you can also watch it on Youtube.

P.S. - No, they never explain why it's called "Heatseeker."

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