Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Action Pack: Vanishing Son

As a kid I used to watch a lot of MY43 in Ohio, a local affiliate that showed all kinds of reruns and syndicated programming. In the 90's I recall a bit of fanfare for a series of Friday night TV movies dubbed The Action Pack, two of which I watched, Hercules and Vanishing Son. Of course Hercules became a long running action-fantasy series starring Kevin Sorbo, fresh off of losing to Dean Cain to play Clark Kent/Superman on ABC's Lois & Clark, that spawned fellow hit series Xena: Warrior Princess. I remember the commercials for the futuristic TekWar, based on a series of books by William Shatner starring My Two Dad's Greg Evigan as well as Midnight Run and Bandit but didn't actually tune in. Being an Asian youth, Vanishing Son (sponsored by KFC) caught my eye though and became taped off the tube staple for years before the internet age. The story of two martial arts trained brothers, Jian-Wa (Russell Wong) and Wago (Chi Muoi Lo) from China who flee to America after being involved in some riots with the Communist government. In the states, the brothers struggle being illegal immigrants with Jian-Wa believing hard work will give him or his kids or grand kids a chance at the American dream while Wago isn't interested in waiting and falls in with some gangsters.

Coming off Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, filmmaker Rob Cohen (who cameos as Jian's teacher) created Vanishing Son as a bit of an expanded mini-saga on the Lee mythos, oppression, martial arts and the pursuit of opportunity in the land of dreams. You see Jian-Wa as the golden child, tall, handsome, good at playing the violin but maybe more talented at fighting (Bloodsport & Dragon alumni John Cheung shows up as his sifu). Then shorter and chubbier little brother Wago who likes to fight and gets involved in protests against the government. Now targets of the state, their father forces them to flee to America to avoid execution. Vanishing Son debuted in January of 1995 and created quite a stir as Eurasian Russell Wong smoldered as the lead and shared multiple love scenes with Caucasian actress Rebecca Gayheart, hot from popular face cream commercials for Noxema. There's plenty of family, political, racial and relationship drama to go along with the fights as Jian-Wa and Wago battle police, thugs, exploitative employers and each other as they end up drifting apart. The martial arts action is terrific with prolonged back and forth fights that take place in jail cells, inside an apartment that spills out into the rest of the building and alley, in a parking lot, etc. Familiar faced stunt men like Jeff Imada, J.J. Perry, Phillip Tan, Roger and Ron Yuan and Hakim Alston pop up as hard kicking adversaries and stunt doubles. A former dancer, Wong trained for six intense weeks before shooting and showcases some excellent movement and high kicks along with leading man charisma.

Vanishing Son II picks up with Jian-Wa on the run after a gang war between Wago's newfound friends and established Chinese Triads explodes into the streets. Taking up with Vietnamese fishermen in Louisiana, Jian-Wa comes up against old boy racists and eventually the KKK as it seems impossible for the two factions to live in peace. Dustin Nguyen (21 Jump Street) shows up as an angry family member who befriends Jian-Wa while Ming-Na Wen (Agents of SHIELD), Kim Chan (Kung Fu), Dean Stockwell (Quantum Leap) and then popular singer/actor Jamie Walters (Beverly Hills, 90210) show up on both sides of the locals. Meanwhile Wago works his way up back in Los Angeles' crime scene and runs into top dog The General, played by Oscar winner Haing S. Ngor. Like the first chapter, the action is interspersed with drama and issues like the fallout of the Vietnam War and how immigrants are accepted into a fearful community. Even though their lives have taken different paths, brothers Jian-Wa and Wago are still tied together as younger brother shows up to lend some firepower during the final confrontation. Big brother can't talk little out of his life of crime and the two again go their separate ways. There's plenty of action and fights with Jian-Wa beginning his Kung-Fu like stance of not fighting if he doesn't need to but when pushed, spin kicks everybody who deserves it.

Part III finds Jian-Wa in Washington, D.C., living under a fake name and competing in a classical music competition where he runs into former flame Clair (Gayheart) and the two rekindle their romance only to be interrupted by the F.B.I. who want Jian-Wa to infiltrate Wago's gang so they can get to The General. Back in L.A., Jian-Wa gets close to Wago under the pretense of wanting to be back in his brothers life while trying to get him out. Things get tricky when family friend Lili (Vivian Wu) shows up after being thought dead as Wago wants her but she wants Jian-Wa. With the F.B.I. eager to crack the case, a deal goes bad, Wago gets killed and Jian-Wa is back on the run. Vanishing Son III benefits from the reunion between bros and there's some good fights between Jian-Wa and a room full of feds, against his brother in the rain and more. Part IV is basically a clip show and series pilot that finds Jian-Wa laid up and being cared for by E.T.'s Dee Wallace after a couple of college kids (Human Target's Mark Valley and Scream's Matt Lillard) hit him on a dark street. Wago appears as a ghost during Jian-Wa's fever dreams and beyond. There's probably only 30 minutes of original footage in IV but Russell Wong gets to ditch his shirt and handle a fight scene as usual.

Miami Vice's John Nicolella directs all four films with aplomb from Rob Cohen and Robert Eisele's scripts. I have no clue how much these films cost but it's said that the Bandit films filmed over 72 days in North Carolina with a budget of $2.5 million each so I'm guessing Vanishing Son fell in the same ballpark even though Bandit had car chases compared to Son's hand to hand sequences. Of the five series of films, Hercules, TekWar and Vanishing Son would go to series. Son ran for 13 episodes in 1995 that seemed to play sporadically on my local station, usually late at night while Hercules got the more prime Saturday afternoon time slot. Shot mainly in San Diego, the series follows Jian-Wa as he travels city to city, The Fugitive style, trying to clear his name with feds on his tail, helping oppressed citizens, romancing the ladies, taking on bad guys of all shapes and sizes while still having conversations with the ghost of his dead brother. One episode reintroduces Dustin Nguyen's character from the second film while Hercules alumni Alexandra Tydings pops up along with a pre-JAG Catherine Bell in others.

While Hercules ran for six seasons, Vanishing Son was not picked up beyond it's initial 13. Rumors swirled that Son was canceled in favor of Xena: Warrior Princess as the syndication package could only take two shows. Xena and Hercules shared much of the same crew and locations, crossed over frequently and became cultural icons. Creator Cohen would continue to work with Universal, churning out DragonHeart, Daylight and the Skulls before hitting it big with The Fast and the Furious and re-teaming with Vin Diesel on XXX. Director Nicolella would graduate to features with 1997's Kull the Conqueror starring fellow Action Pack breakout star Kevin Sorbo for Son executive producer Raffaella De Laurentiis. Lo would go on to star, write, produce and direct Catfish in Black Bean Sauce with Sanaa Lathan (Alien VS Predator) and Paul Winfield (The Terminator). While Wong would co-star opposite Christopher Walken in The Prophecy II and battle Jet Li in Romeo Must Die before making history as the only Asian actor to headline two television series with the CW's short lived Black Sash.

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