Although the film is fondly remembered, the basis for the alleged true story has since proven to be largely false. Over the years, the claims made by Frank Dux about his victory in a secretive underground tournament were shown to be exaggerated, as was much of other aspects of his life. Regardless of the fanciful faux extraordinary life of Frank Dux, he is now as much a part of pop culture as he is ongoing discussion and a source of hilarity.
Yet Count Juan Raphael Dante (‘The Count’) is a more fascinating character who does deserve cinematic treatment, yet seems to have largely fallen into obscurity. That in itself is a travesty, in my opinion.
Count Juan Raphael Dante (real name John Timothy Keehan; February 2, 1939 – May 25, 1975) was a martial arts ‘celebrity’ from the 70s, who rose to infamy during the early 1970s in Chicago. Rather than elucidate the story of The Count in a narrative, I’ve instead decided to present some of his claims in dot-point, as a deliberate method to progressively shock and amuse. Please note that I have had to proactively refrain from ending each of his claims with an exclamation mark.
• Though of Irish ancestry he changed his name to Count Juan Raphael Dante, citing a purported Spanish royalty in his lineage;
• He’d wear a black karate gi in public and walk a pet lion cub on a leash;
• He owned a set of pornography stores, and a string of salons – even styling Playboy Bunnies hair at the request of Hugh Heffner;
• He founded The Black Dragon society and was the master of the Dim Mak (aka death touch, touting himself as ‘The Deadliest man Alive; advertising ‘The world’s deadliest fighting secrets’ in the pages of comic books, with The Count’s poison hand weapons as promoted as ‘maiming, mutilating, disfiguring, paralysing and crippling.’
• He promoted various martial arts tournaments to boost his notoriety, with claims that even the legendary Bruce Lee attended one of The Count’s events. (Honestly, given Lee’s well known disdain for martial arts mysticism, one can infer that Lee might have outright refused the invitation, or quickly excused himself from one)
• At one of his events The Count claimed that he could kill a bull with one punch, even spruiking the event by driving the said bull around town around on a flat-bed truck. This succeeded in generating an eager audience, and ofcourse this bovine fatality did not eventuate.
Anyone with an iota of common sense will know that the fabled ‘Dim Mak’, is just that: a fable. A variation of this was seen in BLOODSPORT but also in KILL BILL, but its existence is limited to fiction and not proven in reality. Evidently these days, thanks to the prevalence of MMA much of these fake masters of hocus-pocus are proven to be illegitimate in real combat scenarios.
Sadly The Count’s was never openly challenged by skeptics like James Randi to publicly debunk his claims. His level of delusion, was taken to new heights with The Count being part of the infamous Dojo Wars of 1970. These confrontations were not petty disputes characterized by chest beating machismo, but involved real criminal acts. In the first instance, The Count and an accomplice decided to attack a rival dojo – with dynamite, after having one too many drinks. Though an arrest and arson charge didn’t sully The Count’s enthusiasm, prompting him to gather his Black Dragon troops and attack another rival dojo. This was a legitimate brawl with both sides armed to the teeth, and sadly resulted in the death of one of The Count’s students, Jim Concevic who was stabbed to death. Despite the death of his friend, The Count would later go on to say he pulled the eyeballs out of his rivals faces; when in fact he was hiding under a desk when the police arrived. A trial had been set but the presiding judge dismissed the case, seemingly out of incredulousness.
I’ll conclude this section here as you readers can easily find more detailed information on Count Dante through an open source search online. Though, for a brilliant overview I would highly recommend the excellent YouTube video by “Oki’s Weird Stories”. Curated below are several elements that would make for an excellent Count Dante biopic, in my opinion.
Immersing myself in the lore of Count Dante, prompted me not only think about the cinematic potential but also the casting of the lead. As a fan of The Office (UK), I was fixated on the idea of Ricky Gervais being cast as Count Dante. Although not sharing immediate physical similarities – besides the moustache and beard – Gervais’ portrayal of fictional David Brent serves as a quasi-template for the real Count Dante. Brent is an incredibly arrogant self-promoter, viewing himself with reverence in the same way that Dante seemed to publicise himself. HOWEVER, when this topic was raised with Lee Golden, the ever-insightful FCS publisher struck casting gold with his choice: Nicholas Cage.
These four syllables immediately removed my preference for Gervais, evidently Nic Cage would be perfect to play Count Dante. In the last 10 years Cage’s career has been up and down, but most recently he has opted for some unique vehicles that illustrate both his versatility and his openness to any genre. Partaking in an avante-garde revenge film like ‘MANDY’, tackling the cosmic horror of HP Lovecraft’s ‘COLOUR OUT OF SPACE’ and boasting action comedy chops in ‘WILLY’S WONDERLAND’ all show that Cage can easily adapt to any style and genre. With his known passion for martial arts and physical prowess, there is no doubt that Cage would bring Count Dante back to life. It would be great to see Mike Moh making an appearance as Bruce Lee, maybe with Margot Robbie in tow as Sharon Tate. Add further cameos like Michael Jai White as Muhammad Ali (this will make sense below), perhaps UK martial arts superstar Mark Strange as Chuck Norris, and include more Aussie glamour with IFBB Pro League Fitness Pro Annaleise Varga as Raquel Welch, then you’d have something special.
When helming what would be an exploitation grindhouse martial arts action film the clear expectation when would be to evoke two names synonymous with the modern rebirth of the genre: Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez. Their eclectic methods and ability to capitalize on various subjects, and successfully bring these to the screen is legendary. Their fearlessness, enthusiasm and creativity have afforded them an undeniable status in modern cinema.
And yet, neither Director would be this journalist’s choice in bringing Count Dante to the silver screen. That honour should be granted to New Zealand Director, Taika Waititi.
Though his catalogue of films is smaller compared to other Directors, Waititi has demonstrated a natural flair for excitement, the ability to merge action and comedy and to bring more colour to a sense of spectacle. Undoubtedly, there was a real cynical intelligence to JO JO RABBIT and a bombastic celebratory vibe to ‘THOR: RAGNAROK’ – two examples of how Waititi can truly captivate.
For his MCU effort, Waititi reportedly drew inspiration from John Carpenter’s classic ‘BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA’, certainly the striking palate of ‘THOR: RAGNAROK’ does evoke the same vibrancy as Carpenter’s cult classic. The colourful life of Count Dante, would be thus best represented by a creative mind like Taika Waititi.
In terms of the script, a witty sensibility would be required and therefore my pick would be the glorious tag team of Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais or Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. And if neither British or American duos are available to pen the script of The Count, I honestly think Lee Golden and myself could be masterfully write it ourselves.
SUBJECT MATTER & STYLE
Pondering this concept doesn’t necessarily create limitless opportunities or ways to envisage the story. Treating it as an exploitation film may now be too much of a tired cliché rather than unique homage; whilst a traditional narrative may be too pedestrian. Perhaps, it would be a biopic intercut with talking heads, fusing the traditional film yet with faux documentary inserts included. Think something along the lines of Justin Lin’s underrated ‘FINISHING THE GAME’, or even Ricky Gervais’ ‘LIFE ON THE ROAD.’
Ironically, the exploits of Count Dante were real and were incredibly hilarious as much as they were bizarre and tragic. The antics of a slightly off kilter individual makes for a compelling and unsettling tale, that has enough comedic shock value to entertain. Not only did Count Dante advertise his invincible fighting skills in the pages of comic books, whilst promoting martial arts tournaments – he reportedly even challenged the great Muhammad Ali to a fight, which ofcourse like the bull fight, never transpired.
Perhaps the themes of fame chasing, delusion and self-destruction could be tacitly explored within the constructs of this film. In many ways, this writer is again compelled to draw comparisons to David Brent in The Office, with Gervais’ portrayal of Brent being a character study into a flawed being that refuses to change for the better. Using that template for a Count Dante movie, could offer the same cringeworthy comedy whilst entertaining with cynicism, and perhaps some sloppy but brutal fight scenes.
The ‘Dojo Wars’ could serve as the concluding chapter, with the tragedy of losing a friend to unnecessary violence perhaps causing The Count’s eventual downfall. Reportedly, it was not a fatal attack that killed The Count, but rather internal a bleeding ulcer that caused internal hemorrhaging. He died on 25 May 1975. Creative license in the movie may suggest depression caused by his friend’s death, or maybe, just maybe he was assassinated with the very method he specialized in. Regardless, the concept of self-destruction through grief or by mysticism, could be examined in either way.
Evidently, the Count’s bizarre life is rife with content and it confounds this writer as to why no one has pursued this avenue for the silver screen. Ironically, if Count Dante given cinema treatment perhaps he would perhaps realize the greater infamy he sought, but in in death, rather than in life.
And as I said to Lee, if the film is optioned by a studio, and attaches Nicolas Cage and Taika Waititi – you’ll never hear the end of me saying ‘We told you so’.