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Hipster Holy Grail: A Dangerous Place (1994)

The Hipster Holy Grail is my ongoing quest to review an obscure movie before it becomes cool to talk about it. Good, bad, doesn't matter.  It just has to be at least 10 years old and have less than 1,000 ratings on IMDb. This week, I watched....

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

Somewhere in the mid-nineties, PM Entertainment found a talented young martial artist with the minimally required capacity for acting and a penchant for kicking people in the face and decided to headline him in a bunch of low budget movies.  A Dangerous Place seems to be the best of them all and is worth your time to seek out.

My Rating: 4 / 5

The Plot Summary

I didn't actually plan for October to be a Ted Jan Roberts themed month.  It just kinda worked out that way when I realized I had a third movie of his in my stock.  Since I'd already watched Tiger Heart and The Power Within, I felt like it would be a terrible waste of an opportunity not to continue with A Dangerous Game.

There's just one problem: this is actually a legitimately good movie.  I have a feeling that not much else in Mr. Roberts's catalog is, which means whatever I scramble to watch for next week is probably going to be a step down.  Such is life.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves.  This week's movie is about an average high school kid named Ethan (Ted Jan Roberts) and his brother, Greg (Dean Cochran), who get embroiled with a gang's deadly antics.  And you'll never in a million years guess this, but Ethan's enrolled in a karate class.

Now, I get that it might seem arbitrary for a character to just start busting out some martial arts out of nowhere, and in A Dangerous Game, the karate class actually factors into the plot in an inextricable way - but just once this month I'd like to see one of Roberts' movies where his karate class isn't a focal point.  You don't have to explain why one person's kicks might hurt more than somebody else's - you show me a guy kick another guy in the face, and I'll still believe your movie.


This time around, the classes are at least more than just filler.  Ethan and Greg's dojo, led by Mako (who may be given a name in the movie, but who cares, it's Mako), is a place of discipline, honor, and personal growth.  Their team name is the "Lions" and their whole deal is that they don't compete in karate for trophies or gamesmanship.  Ethan and Greg are at the top of the class.

Lately, though, Greg has been ditching the Lions to go hang out with a rival dojo, the Scorpions.  When we first meet the Scorpions (the opening credits, actually), we see that they're karate fans by day and thieves by night.  Not just thieves - super thieves.  The movie opens with them engaging in a high speed chase that leads to two police cruisers flipping over and exploding while the Scorpions get away seamlessly.

There's four Scorpions that mainly engage in their nightly burglaries, but the only two you need to know are Taylor (Corey Feldman), the too-cool-for-school leader, and Eddie (William James Jones), the genial black guy.  Greg doesn't yet know what they're up to at night - so far, he just thinks Taylor and Eddie are kinda neat to hang out with.

One fateful day, they invite him to join them for some hijinks.  It starts when they talk him into a fight with a rival street gang member so they can wager a dirt bike, and then it ends, naturally, with a home invasion.  Greg is reluctant to commit to the break-in, but I guess he kinda had fun with the whole "unsanctioned street fight" thing, so he's in for a penny, in for a pound.  Besides, nobody's home, so it's not like he's hurting anybody...

...except for the part where it turns out that there are still people in the house.  Greg panics and tries to get the Scorpions to leave, but they aren't having it.  They get into a fight and gang up on Greg, then mace him.  Outnumbered and in incredible pain, Greg is overwhelmed.  Then he gets kicked down a flight of stairs and his neck snaps.

The Scorpions freak out - they weren't planning on murder today.  Taylor takes point and gets the others to help him hang up Greg's body in their high school's gym so they can stage his death as a suicide.  Ethan discovers the scene the next day along with the rest of the school and is utterly devastated.

He and his mother mourn and try their best to cooperate with the authorities investigating the scene.  So far, everybody's willing to take it at face value, including Detective Jacobs (Eddi Wilde), who's investigating Greg's death.  Ethan can't bring himself to believe his brother was suicidal, though, so he immediately suspects the Scorpions are up to no good.  He pushes for Jacobs to investigate them to no avail.

Right around here is where we get Roberts' first and arguably best fight scene.  One of the background Scorpions harasses him in the lunch room at school, so Ethan flips out (almost literally) and attacks him. The Scorpion is taller and stronger, but Ethan is quicker and more talented.  It makes for a good back-and-forth - you see Ethan get shoved and put into a lock a few times, but then he always finds a way to break out of it and get in a good hit.  Come to think of it, that's how pretty much all the fight scenes are in this movie - and they're all pretty solid.

The fight goes on for a little longer than expected because the teacher in charge of the cafeteria at that moment, Gavin (Marshall Teague), allows it to happen.  He's introduced inauspiciously here, and in almost the next scene you realize he's actually the Scorpions' evil sensei.  Teague does the full on "no mercy for your enemies" act that you've come to expect from martial arts movies.  So, whatever stereotypical douchebag karate teacher you're picturing is accurate.

Since the background Scorpion was not able to fight Ethan into submission, Gavin beats the shit out of him as punishment.  And while that's happening, we get more footage of Ethan learning positive lessons from Mako and continuing to mourn Greg's death.

That night, Ethan has a ghostly vision of Greg.  It fills him with a sense of awe and purpose.  The next morning, he decides to do some amateur sleuthing to avenge his brother.  So he tracks down Eddie at school and tells him he wants to join the Scorpions.

Cue the undercover agent part of this movie, which doesn't actually last as long as you'd expect.  Part of this is because the Scorpions don't believe for a minute that Ethan actually wants to be part of their dojo - they just saw him beat one of their guys up the day before.  Taylor is willing to go along with it, anyway, because he thinks it might help them deflect suspicion about Greg's murder.  So, Ethan's in. Sort of.

Ethan goes to the Scorpion dojo for his first class, and Gavin immediately writes him off.  He sics Eddie on him as a skill test.  Ethan handily wins the match, but since he backs off when Eddie taps out, Gavin is infuriated and unimpressed.  (Now, I get that Gavin is a total asshole and the Scorpions fight dirty and all that, but how exactly do you get away with running a karate class where you teach your students that the appropriate response to somebody tapping out is to punch them in the throat?  Isn't that basically lawsuit city?  I never took karate.  Somebody who had a dickhead sensei will have to post in the comments and let me know.)

Gavin is so incensed that he demands that Ethan convince Mako to set up a competition between the dojos.  Why exactly he wants this, I don't know.  I think he's just trying to prove a point.  It kinda doesn't make a lot of sense - pretty much this only happens so they can make the movie end with a fighting tournament.

Anyway, Eddie appreciates the mercy.  He meets up with Ethan after class and they start chatting.  Then a band of random muggers tries to rob them, and Ethan helps Eddie beat the shit out of them.  Having bonded over mutual enemies and violence, Eddie is totally willing to take Ethan under his wing and be a pal.  Despite Taylor's misgivings, Eddie invites Ethan to come with them on the burglary they have planned for that night.

Taylor is pissed off when he finds out that Ethan is tagging along - he's tired of the kid and wants to ditch him.  But Eddie vouches for him, so Ethan helps the guys steal some TVs.  Then he gets a front row seat for another car chase, which ends with another police cruiser flipping over.  They ditch Ethan shortly after that.  Then, in case you hadn't guessed, they meet up with Gavin and confirm that he's been the head of their criminal enterprise this whole time.

The next day, Ethan joins Eddie and another background Scorpion as they ditch the van from last night and trade it into a sleazy garage for another van with clean license plates.  A random bum comes around begging for change, and the background Scorpion gets annoyed.  Seeing no other available options to handle the situation, the Scorpion maces the bum.  Ethan watches, horrified, as the bum screams "My eyes! My eyes!" and tears come streaming down.  Then he flashes back to his vision of ghost Greg and remembers that he also had red eyes.  And this allows him to make the connection: Greg was maced, the Scorpions have mace, ergo, the Scorpions maced Greg and killed him.

Ethan tries to attack the Scorpion and directly accuses him of Greg's murder.  Eddie pulls him aside and tries to calm Ethan down, and in the process confesses to everything that happened.  He's not willing to testify to the police yet, though, because he's afraid he'll just get thrown in jail even though he did not directly attack Greg.

So, uh, time for a karate tournament.  I guess.

In an off screen conversation, the Lions agreed to fight the Scorpions, and the high school, in their infinite wisdom, agreed to host the tournament in the same gym where Greg's body was found.  We get to see a couple of good fights while Ethan psyches himself up.  Ethan goes to the Lions and reveals that he wants to fight on their team - and at this point he more or less explains his undercover scheme.

Outraged by the insult to his team, Gavin demands that Taylor kill Ethan in the ring.  Taylor, in a pretty good bit of, "Are you fucking serious?" acting from Feldman, confirms that, yes, his psychotic teacher does in fact want him to murder a fourteen year old in front of a bunch of high school kids.  But, hey, whatever sensei wants, sensei gets, so Taylor agrees.

While the movie builds up to the climactic fight scene between Ethan and Taylor, Detective Jacobs starts to put more pieces together and gets an anonymous tip from one of Ethan's classmates (who in turn received it from Eddie) that some serious shit is going down. Jacobs rounds up some officers and they head to the high school.

Cue the fight scene between Feldman and Roberts, Part 1.  It's... okay.  Feldman can act tough for the insert shots of him they use, but since it's clear he's nowhere near as skilled as Roberts is, the filmmakers couldn't film their fight too clearly.  There's a lot of awkward cutting so they can sneak in a body double for Feldman, and it hurts the pacing quite a bit.

In the actual movie, though, it's a nail-biting, drag-out bout, and Taylor gets the upper hand.  He's about to deliver his death blow when the cops bust in and start making arrests.  Taylor runs, and once Ethan catches his breath, he chases him.  They have a brief dirt bike / foot race that culminates with Ethan jumping off a hill and kicking Taylor off the bike.

Cue Feldman v Roberts, Part 2.  It's... less okay.  Frankly, these climactic fights are kind of a let down given the stuff we got to see before.  Still, it's filmed well enough to be believable, and that's all that really counts.

This time around, Ethan manages to get the upper hand.  He beats Taylor into submission and is getting ready to pull one of Gavin's famous throat punches, but then Greg's ghost shows up again and goes, "C'mon, bro.  Not worth it."  So Ethan just walks away in disgust.  Then Detective Jacobs comes and arrests Taylor.

Oh, and also Ethan has a girlfriend now.

What I Liked / Didn't Like

I mentioned earlier that I think this is a legit movie, so there's not actually a ton to complain about.  I have some nitpicks though, so let me get those out of the way.

First, where the hell is the fight between Mako and Marshall Teague?  I mean, I know this movie is basically just trying to echo The Karate Kid and if you're following that model you can't end with a blowout fight, since Miyagi never beat the shit out of Kreese.  But let's get real.  Kreese was just an asshole who took his dojo too seriously.  Marshall Teague's character is a bona fide crime lord who covered up the murder of one kid and was ordering the murder of another.  At the very least, the movie owed us the Karate Kid deleted scene of him bloodying himself with a fist through a window.  Preferably it would be his face instead.

To be fair, A Dangerous Place almost gives that to you.  There's like maybe fifteen seconds after the cops bust up the (possibly illegal) tournement where the two senseis square off and Mako knocks Teague to the floor.  But that's all you get.  Both of them completely disappear from the movie after that - for all we know, Teague made a clean break out of the gym and skipped town.  Maybe that was Kreese's origin story?

Now that I think about it - why the hell isn't Mako in that final scene to tell Ethan not to kill Taylor?  Mako's supposed to be Ethan's rock, the thing that ties him to a moral compass.  Subbing him out with Greg's ghost is kind of a cop out. Which segues nicely into my next complaint, which is:

Why is there a goddamned ghost in this movie?  The rest of it is pretty well grounded.  I mean, sure, the van chases are a bit overblown, but they're not supernatural.  About 98% of this movie is a dramatic suspense where tension is achieved through a realistic depiction of consequences and human frailty, and the other 2% is a dead guy giving his brother clues.  Great.

If it was just a metaphor for Ethan's grief and his inability to get past his brother's loss, then I'd give it a total pass, the same way I can completely forgive that one scene in Gravity that I technically just spoiled for some of you.  Unfortunately, the movie actually makes Greg's ghost part of the rising action - the whole reason that Ethan is able to connect Greg's murder to the Scorpions, and therefore push Eddie closer to breaking ties and confessing to the police, is that he sees Greg's ghost's eyes tearing up from mace - which is something he could not possibly have known unless the ghost was real.  So, nope, no pass on this one.

I got a rule about movies with ghosts.  Either you're a movie about ghosts, or you're a movie where the writer went, "Fuck, I don't know.  Maybe a ghost did it?"

But leaving those gripes aside... I really dug this movie.  It has a lot going for it.

For one, you get the good Corey Feldman. It's one of those movies that reminds you that he was actually talented at what he did back in the day.  I know the dude got sucked into a lot of dreck and became an Internet punchline well before the Internet, but he's got a decent filmography with a solid range.  Movies like this make me ache for a proper comeback where somebody gives him a high profile bit part.  Like, maybe he can be somebody's grumpy dad in a raunchy teen sex comedy.  He'd be good at that.  You can picture it, right?  Some pasty fuckhead is wandering around with his dick in a vacuum or something, and then Feldman comes home from work sporting five o'clock shadow and baggy eyes.  Then, staring on, dead-eyed and sullen, he just unplugs the vacuum and goes up to bed without saying a word.  Hollywood - get on that.

Ooh, or he could play up his dated relevance by specifically being a clueless sleazeball.  Like, maybe the next Judd Apatow movie will be about Paul Rudd and Seth Rogen working in an advertising firm, and Feldman can be a sketchy co-worker who keeps showing up dressed like '80s icons and hits on girls who are waaaaaay too young for him, and he says a bunch of inappropriate shit.  Then Rudd and Rogen riff on him when he's not in the room, and everybody will watch the movie and be like, "Wow, that was brave of Feldman to let himself be the butt of the joke like that.  What a charming guy."

What I'm saying is, he doesn't have to be relegated to voice work and replaying Edgar Frog every four years.

Totally unnecessary side note: when random people tell me they think I look like somebody, white people always say Corey Feldman, and black people always say Superman.  No offense to Feldman, but I like black people's opinion better.

Anyway, the whole reason I watched this movie was because it had one Ted Jan Roberts in it, so it's about time I finally get around to it and give him his due: the dude is awesome in this movie.

He gets so much more range here than he did in the other movies I've reviewed.  He gets to be a snotty little brother, but then a loving brother.  He gets to be joyous, then somber.  He gets to be surreptitious and smooth, then comically inept.  And not only that, but his martial arts are so much better.  He's in at least four fight scenes that I can count, and he's fantastic in all of them.  He's quick, he looks like he knows what he's doing, and he's fun to watch.

You know what, here's a good way to put it.  Last week I was excited because Roberts jumped off a table and kicked a bully in the face, and I thought that was awesome.  In this movie, he does the same thing, but then he spins around and kicks said bully in the face another five or six times.  It's all the great stuff from The Power Within, except put into a competent movie.

One of the best things about A Dangerous Place is how it doesn't try to oversell Roberts's abilities.  Ethan is a good fighter, sure, but he's not god-like.  He never wins a fight by a dramatic margin - he always just barely scrapes by.  In fact, the final fight gets broken up halfway through, and when it is broken up, he's losing - badly.  He's not even all that great at being an undercover agent - when he tries to infiltrate the Scorpions, they immediately suspect he's up to something and try to keep him in the dark.  I appreciate a movie that's not afraid to give its hero a real challenge.  (In fact, I might go so far as to say that's the basic definition of "conflict.")

A Dangerous Place is going to go on the same shelf as Split Image, Hawks, and Stuart Bliss as movies that I found through the HHG and want to revisit some day without any sense of irony whatsoever.  I could see this one working its way into my regular rotation - at the very least, I wish it had back when I was a kid.

How Much Hipster Cred Is It Worth?

First up, the obscurity bonus: 30 cred for having only 250 ratings on IMDB.  It gets my full recommendation bonus, so that's another 30 cred.

Corey Feldman is worth quite a bit - that's 10 cred just for him.  The Coreys are a strange mark of hipsterdom - you'd expect them to be worthless in terms of cred because literally everybody knows about them, and that's pretty much the exact opposite of what a true hipster wants.  But they're so richly emblematic of the "I'm not sure if I'm sneering at this or if I'm honestly embracing it" phenomenon that is hipsterdom, so they end up being worth more because of their notoriety.  I'm sorry, what was I saying before I started rambling?  Oh yeah, a 10 point Corey bonus.

I'll give it another 10 point pedigree bonus for coming from PM Entertainment Group, and finally, another 5 points for the martial arts.

It all adds up to 85 hipster cred out of a possible 100.  Not bad - plus, you get to watch something and enjoy it sober for once.

Where You Can Watch

A Dangerous Place is streaming on for a price.  Alternately, if you go before it gets pulled for copyright violations, you can find it on Youtube.