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Hipster Holy Grail: Street Soldiers (1991)

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

If it wasn't marred by gratuitous rape and an overall feeling of grossness, Street Soldiers would be a pretty fun martial arts romp with at least one hilariously overdone performance. As is, you can't quite get into the fun stuff without being constantly reminded of its worst elements.

My Rating: 3 / 5 (Junior Varsity Bad Movie)

The Plot Summary

Street Soldiers ostensibly takes place in a rough-and-tumble neighborhood that's short on prospects, but rich with guts and street fights.  I didn't realize this until like an hour in, though, because so many of the characters look like reasonably well-to-do WASPy types with matching letterman jackets.  Regardless, trust me on this: the characters all live in the 'hood.

Life is tough on the streets, and if you're an able-bodied male age 12 to pretending-to-be-18, you're better off ingratiating yourself in a gang.  There are two choices in Street Soldiers: the Schoolies, who wear the aforementioned jackets and pass themselves off as the "good" gang (although, other than showing them go to school, the movie makes very little effort to portray the Schoolies as particularly wholesome folks), or the JPs, the movie's "bad" gang.  I have no idea what "JP" stands for.  I'm going to go with "Junior Partners" because I like the idea of a rough Wall Street gang.

Now, the JPs do some pretty nasty stuff throughout Street Soldiers, so I'm not going to pretend they aren't a bunch of one-dimensional villains, but I do have to point out: they're not actually seen doing much in the way of attacking the community at large.  The only time the movie contextualizes them that way is when you hear the Schoolies complaining about the JPs later on, which, let's face it, is a pretty biased source.  It seems that pretty much the only goals the JPs have are to A) claim "ownership" of the hood, whatever the fuck that means, and B) beat up the Schoolies.

I guess this is my way of saying that the core conflict between the movie's two central groups of characters is ill-defined.  I coulda really used a scene or two of the JPs selling crack or stealing TVs or something, you know?

Anyway, the film opens with Max (Johnathan Gorman), a Schoolie, hanging out with his good friend, Charles (Joon Kim).  The implication is that Charles is a good fighter and as such has been offered an honorary membership in the Schoolies, but he has thus far declined and instead remains a nominally neutral Schoolies ally.  Max and Charles shoot the shit a bit, then split ways. Max meets up with another Schoolie and starts walking home, but they are accosted by a couple of rogue JPs led by the always-snarling Spider (Jude Gerard Prest).

There's a lot of posturing and screaming here.  The Schoolies point out that the JPs are in violation of "the truce," the terms of which are never made clear, and Spider points out that he does not like Schoolies and wants to pick a fight.  So, they fight.  Max and his friend get beaten up pretty soundly, and then Charles shows up to help them out.  They start to repel the JPs, but then Spider pulls out a gun and shoots Max's friend to death.

This would be a pretty good instigating moment to get a bigger conflict rolling, and considering the way the movie sets this scene up, you expect it to be a catalyst.  Spoilers: it isn't.  But they make a big deal about it, anyway.

And now the movie is ready to introduce the actual main characters: Troy (David Homb) and Priest (Jeff Rector).  Troy is the son of a well-to-do muckity-muck who owns a shipping business of some sort, and he's working at one of his father's warehouses to build character.  While there, Troy befriends Max, who also has a job at the warehouse, and becomes another honorary Schoolie.  (That's the thing about Schoolies, man.  Memberships are kinda meaningless when you just let anybody join without a proper initiation.)  Troy is a pretty generic white guy hero and after about five minutes you'll forget that he's supposed to be a magnitude wealthier than his compatriots.

Priest, on the other hand, is the JPs leader.  He's been in prison the last few years and is released shortly after the movie opens.  He rejoins the JPs with two important assets: 1) his always-at-11 Drama Voice and Stare, which get increasingly funnier as the movie progresses, and 2) his mysterious, mute friend, Tok (Jang Lee Hwang), a stoic Asian guy who became Priest's friend in prison and carries a poison-spitting cobra around with him.

When Priest gets back to the JPs' hideout, he makes a big stink about them breaking the truce and then beats the shit out of Spider to reaffirm his place at the top of the pyramid. While that's going on, Max invites Troy to the high school's dance, where he introduces Troy to two generic girlfriend characters: Marie (Deborah Newmark), Max's girlfriend, and Julie (Katherine Armstrong), Marie's best friend and potential mating material for Troy.  Because it's a movie, Troy and Julie are immediately attracted to each other for no real good reason.  They dance and enjoy the evening.  Briefly.

Then Priest and his fellow JPs burst into the dance hall to pick a fight with the Schoolies.  And here is where you realize just how pointless the opening fight / murder was: Priest's sole motivation in the movie is to kidnap Julie, who he learned was back in town in an earlier throwaway scene.  Y'see, despite being another seemingly-secure cornbread white girl, Julie actually has a dark and morbid history; she and Priest were a couple back in their early teens.  At the time, they were both foolish kids desperate to survive the brutal streets of wherever-the-hell-they-are.  Since then, Julie has grown older and wiser, and Priest has grown more psychopathic.  Julie broke it off years ago, and Priest has been pining to recover his property ever since.

This leads to probably my favorite moment of the whole movie, and the part that I thought - hoped - would be proof I was in for a treat.  The setup: the JPs barge into the dance, the Schoolies stand up to them, and then Priest glowers creepily at Julie.  The two gangs break out into a mass brawl, with each JP taking a Schoolie as a fightin' partner.  They scuffle for awhile and then Marie helps Julie slip out the back door.  Priest notices that Julie is gone, so he whips out a gun and starts shooting wildly all over the place.  Naturally, everybody throws themselves to the floor to avoid getting hit.  There is an awkward, terse silence as Priest booms, "WHERE IS MY BITCH?!"  Then he pouts and puts his gun away, and everybody stands up again... and resumes fighting as if nothing else happened.

So, the next hour or so is basically a lot of the same thing over and over again. Priest keeps sending the JPs out to beat up Schoolies and harass them in his never-ending search for Julie, and Julie either evades detection or keeps getting away from Priest just in time to avoid being kidnapped and held indefinitely as a sex hostage.  It's all very vile and creepy.

In the middle of it all, we find out that Charles (remember him?) has an uncle, Han (Jun Chong), who has opened a karate dojo in the neighborhood and offers self-defense lessons.  Troy is quick to sign up since he doesn't have too many skills.  After he shows off some of his new moves in one of the many, many fight scenes, the other Schoolies are intrigued and sign up for karate lessons, too.  There's a tiny bit of lip service paid here to the tried-and-true tropes about discipline and using martial arts for defense only, but at the same time, the movie makes no pretense about the fact that the Schoolies just want to be able to beat up the JPs better.

More fights ensue.  (They're not bad, actually, but there's just so many that you kinda stop caring after awhile.)  And then the movie decides that it hasn't been gross enough, so the JPs kidnap Marie and gang-rape her to try to extort Julie's location.

Yup, in what has up till now been a silly "take back the streets with karate" action romp, there is a sudden tonal shift in the worst possible way.  (To be honest, this isn't the first rape scene; there is a brief moment early on where Priest notices a couple young ladies at the JPs' hideout when he first gets out of prison, and he immediately closes in on them with full-on perv face.)  The movie is at least polite enough not to debase the actresses with any nudity or on-screen humiliation, but that doesn't really make it unpleasant.  I mean, I guess this is as tasteful as rape can be, but it's still rape.

So, there's more fighting after that, including a couple more murders, and eventually the police finally get involved.  And by that, I mean that there's about a two minute scene where a cop complains that the Schoolies aren't willing to submit testimony against the JPs, so there's nothing they can possibly do to rein in the violence.

Anyway, eventually Charles gets killed.  And then Priest succeeds in kidnapping Julie.  These two events, one after the other, finally push Han and the Schoolies into full-on vengeance mode, so the stage is set for an epic blow-out brawl.'s underwhelming.

They basically do the same thing all low-budget movies do where they storm an abandoned warehouse at night, so all the footage kinda looks the same.  There's a bunch more fist-fighting, and then they all start whipping out guns and shooting each other.  Tons of them die, and then we set up the one-on-one fights to bring it all to a head: Han takes on Tok, and Troy takes on Priest.

The Han/Tok fight is the more interesting one, since the actors are better skilled and can do more physically intimidating stuff.  Their fight also opens with Tok throwing his cobra at Han like a spear, to which Han responds by catching it and blocking the cobra's venom spray with an open palm.  So, yeah, not only did he foresee that a dude would chuck a snake at him, he also had the foresight to protect his eyes.  That's how shit goes down in Little Tokyo.

The Troy/Priest fight is significantly less fun.  They basically just punch each other.  Priest implies that he's already raped Julie a couple of times while waiting for Troy to show up, and then Troy bludgeons him into submission.

The surviving heroes - at this point, pretty much just Troy, Han, and Julie - regroup and catch their breath.  Then Priest skulks through the shadows, ready to strike at them while they're recovering.  Boom!  Surprise gunshots!  Some mysterious stranger has shown up at the last second to save the day by shooting Priest a dozen times in the chest - who is it?

It's Marie.  Hope you enjoyed that surprise, because the movie treats it like a mic drop and cuts straight to credits.

What I Liked / Didn't Like

Street Soldiers comes really close to scratching that good bad movie itch.  There's a lot going for it.

The fight scenes are all competently filmed and there's excellent stunt work throughout.  There's a bunch of totally needless action scenes that are kinda fun, like one part where some Schoolies get away from the JPs by jumping off an overpass onto a speeding truck below.

And it has its fair share of "what the hell is going on here?" nonsense moments that take you by surprise.  I mentioned two of the best already - the dance hall "break for gunfire" fight interruption and the ol' poison cobra spear trick.  But there's more, including a cut away shot of Han when Charles is killed where he has, apropos of nothing, a psychic vision of his nephew's death and goes running to check on him.

I'd love to recommend it because of all that stuff, but there's just too much goddamn rape.  It's a common complaint I have on this blog - you start getting into a movie and laughing both with and at at it, and you're having a good time getting your drink on, and then BAM! - a faceful of dick.  Well, not really, but I mean... you know what I mean.

I don't know what it is about low-budget filmmakers that compels them to shove rape into their movies.  It's too gut-wrenching a thing to use as a plot device.  To put it another way: if you're trying to renovate a house, you can take down a wall with a sledgehammer and a crowbar - you really shouldn't bring out the C4.

The rape is bad enough on its own, but it also exacerbates a serious problem that I call the "Ramsay Bolton Effect."  If you're one of the six people in the country who are somehow more behind on pop culture than I am, I'll explain: Ramsay Bolton was an infamous character from Game of Thrones who committed some of, if not the worst atrocities in the story, ranging from mutilation to rape to infanticide to combinations of all of the above.

He was such an awful, detestable, loathsome character that at a certain point his presence went from "Wow, I wonder what his pure evil is building up to" to "Why the fuck haven't they killed him yet?"  The show (I have no knowledge of the books) kept trying to outdo Ramsay's horrors week after week until eventually it crossed all boundaries of redemption.  By that, I don't mean that the character was beyond saving; you knew from the get-go that he was a wretched villain until his death.  I mean that there was nothing you could do with Ramsay that would make his arc come to a satisfying conclusion.

A simple death would not have felt like justice to make up for all the heinous shit he did.  On the other hand, his just desserts would be too displeasing to bear - like, for Ramsay to get what he actually deserved, you'd need an hour of people shitting in his mouth while piercing his balls with rusty spikes, and then worse.  Who wants to watch that?

So you end up with this grotesque, miserable character who just pisses you off and depresses you, and there's no longer anything to be gained from having him in the story.  You won't be satisfied when he dies, and you don't want to see him anymore, but in order for the show to progress meaningfully, he has to come back for at least a little longer and make you more aggravated.  That's the Ramsay Bolton Effect - it's when a character is so evil that the story can no longer sustain them.

Priest is not as evil a villain as Ramsay - you'd have to try reaaaaaaally hard to get that low - but once he commands / leads Marie's gang rape, the movie definitely crosses the line.  Priest ends up doing more and more heinous shit after that, including more (implied) rape, murders, home invasions, kidnapping, and torture.  By the hour mark, you start to realize: there's no way he's going to get the comeuppance he deserves, and the movie simply becomes tedious.

So, leaving aside your feminist critiquing lens, leaving aside logic, leaving aside aesthetics, and just watching from the pure, testosterone-driven desire to see a revenge movie play itself out, you might still be holding out hope that at the very least Priest gets killed in a clever or interesting way.  Sadly, no.  He gets stabbed in the arm, he gets punched in the face a lot, and then he gets shot.  It's very disappointing.

Since the movie has some enjoyably bad stuff, I can't totally write it off.  I'm going to lump it in the Junior Varsity Bad Movie category, since I think you might still have fun with (some of) it if you know about the worst parts ahead of time.

How Much Hipster Cred Is It Worth?

It has just under the cutoff for maximum obscurity cred with 94 IMDb ratings, as of today.  So, that'll get it 45 points.  I'll give it another 10 points as a pedigree bonus for being directed by Lee Harry of Silent Night, Deadly Night 2 fame.  And let's give it a 15 point "you've probably never heard of them" bonus for the cast overall, even though Jeff Rector has been in (the background of) a ton of stuff.

The martial arts action by itself isn't enough to get hipster cred, though it does lay a good foundation for hipster content.  I'll give it five points apiece for that poison cobra that keeps showing up and for the occasional psychic visions.

I really want to give it some recommendation cred, but I don't think I can do that.  So it'll stay at a still respectable total of 80 hipster cred out of a possible 100.

Where You Can Watch

If you go now before it gets pulled for copyright violations, you can watch Street Soldiers on Youtube.