Classic Cannon: Mercenary Fighters (1988) - Reviewed

Richard Kiel, better known as Jaws in the James Bond movies, once remarked he only ever turned down four film roles in his life and among them was the merc Virelli that ultimately went to Peter Fonda in this week’s Classic Cannon entry Mercenary Fighters.  Whether or not Kiel made the right decision is debatable as the Easy Rider actor would ultimately play second fiddle to B-movie legend Reb Brown and his infamous “Reb-el yells” in this largely forgotten but still fun chunk of Golan-Globus late-80s action adventure trash. 

While the Go-Go Boys were indeed trying to boost their credibility with productions like Barfly and Powwaqatsi, they were still up to their old tricks cranking out Braddock: Missing in Action III and Death Wish 4: The Crackdown.  Mercenary Fighters, briefly issued on DVD through MGM’s Limited Edition Collection, doesn’t quite achieve the level of outlandish infamy the Go-Go Boys are known for but fans of the typical Cannon Films fare still have plenty to chew on here. 

Set in the fictitious African country known as Shinkasa (Gymkata’s Parmistan, anyone?), a band of international mercenaries led by ruthless Col. Kyemba (Robert DoQui from Robocop) are hired to drive out native rebel villagers to make way for an electric dam financed by a corrupt President.  Enlisting Peter Fonda, James Mitchum, Robert Whitehead, Ron O’Neal and Reb Brown as a character named T.J. Christian (believe it or not), the various mercs are flown in with simple directive to clearing out the counter-rebels: shoot to kill. 

Much like the simultaneously released Dolph Lundgren African set actioner Red Scorpion, Reb Brown’s hero once deployed to fight the rebels grows sympathetic to their cause and finds himself switching sides.  Mercenary Fighters even tosses a love interest into the mix with Nurse Ruth Warwick (Joanna Weinberg) being among the few standing between the natives and the bullet of a gun.  If this sounds like typical low budgeted Cannon Films check-your-brain-at-the-door fodder, you’ve probably been through more than your share of Chuck Norris or Michael Dudikoff flicks.

That’s not to say you’re just getting more of the same.  While that’s largely true, this was among the few times the “Reb-el yeller” graced the Go-Go Boys with his presence.  Having already been around the block doing these kinds of bullets-and-brawn low budget action flicks for various Italian directors including Bruno Mattei and Claudio Fragasso, Brown doesn’t disappoint with arguably his cheesiest moment of pure 80s action machismo yet.  With that poster image of the ripped musclehead Brown firing a machine gun as explosions ignite around him with a ferocious scowl as he bellows out that scream heard around the world, it could be the quintessential Cannon Films image signifying sheer over-the-top ‘80s action adventure “awesomeness”.

Despite having a grating keyboard score by Howard Morgan and mostly serviceable cinematography by regular Cannon Films go-to DP Daniel Schneor, Mercenary Fighters sports some genuinely dangerous looking action stunts with explosions flipping some of the stuntmen into somersaults and a pretty large kill count to boot.  The film is notable for being one of Israeli producer-director Riki Shelach Nissimoff’s few English language efforts with his largely Middle-Eastern filmography pointing to Mercenary Fighters as something of an outlier in his career.  Pretty clearly Menahem and Yoram were steering this ship and for every high watermark in the joint producers’ time together, they invariably aimed low with things like Mercenary Fighters.

By now the Go-Go Boys had produced and released Superman IV: The Quest for Peace and were in something of a creative downturn, yet their trademark thrown-together action-adventure junk was still plentiful enough to leave room for Reb Brown to do his thing.  While Peter Fonda retains top billing, this is largely Reb’s show with Ron O’Neal making an entertaining sidekick of sorts. Mercenary Fighters is the kind of film where you care less about quality than just wanting Reb Brown to burst into his primal scream in the heat of battle and eat up those old fashioned cheap thrills only the Go-Go Boys could possibly provide. 

- Andrew Kotwicki