‘LEGENDARY LETTICH LOST MEDIA’ – Review: FIREFIGHT (1986)
This movie critic must preface this review with a brief historical comment, that this long dormant short film written and directed by cinema great Sheldon Lettich was shot in 1983 and finished in 1986. It’s been well over three decades and finally, his vision of war has been carefully reconstructed for release – and this movie critic was one of the very first people to watch and critically assess it.
FIREFIGHT (1986) stands at just over 16 minutes in duration, where we are treated to a very bleak war time scenario with a tired voiceover denoting the perilous circumstances faced by his platoon. Joe Turano sings the sombre ‘Good Christian Soldier’ further adding to the dour tone of the film. The premise is simple and direct. A rescue mission goes awry on a Vietnamese hilltop, with a squad of marines besieged by Viet Cong forces.
Though whilst the acting may be ropey, it lends to the realism that has been injected into this short film that leaves the viewer feeling devastated and somewhat depressed. There is an initial light-hearted element to each of the American characters, as they are jocular and upbeat with one another evoking the concept of the ‘band of brothers’ – a necessary dynamic that forms within a close knit group of soldiers. The mood quickly changes when they are ambushed, and scramble to fight off a wave of Viet Cong; several of their colleagues are horrifically injured and the able bodied do their best to protect the fallen.
Though dated, the film is violent and raw as it portrays the hopelessness of war with the adrenalin fuelled aggression neither stylised nor glorified. It’s a hazardous and fatal orgy on the blood soaked battlefield, outmanned and outnumbered as these marines try to hold their position.
Lettich has implemented a distinct grittiness that almost lends the film a quasi-documentary quality, highlighting the brutality and devastation between two opposing forces. Though by today’s standards the violence could be considered tame, it is still frenzied and fiendish with the close up zoom-ins on the fallen marines particularly jarring – illustrating the depravity of the scenario. It’s visually arresting as much as it is unsettling, evoking a documentary style with that gritty film grain producing a striking result. As an early work of the legendary Lettich, the budget would pale in comparison to the full features that he would later become renowned for but the effectiveness of FIREFIGHT makes this a memorable work. Furthermore, it remains impactful because Lettich has largely eschewed any heavy handed jingoism, or chest beating. In many ways it is a depressing exploration of human frailty within a snapshot, that leaves the viewer as shell shocked as the actual participants of the story.
What’s more the stars of this piece are notable in their own right. Whilst Frank Dux may be a polarising figure in the world of martial arts and action cinema, it’d be remiss if one fails to acknowledge the impact he has within pop culture; his various achievements are staggering when one considers his overall contributions to various pursuits. Within ‘FIREFIGHT’, Dux is the capable and level headed squad leader in Cuda. By contrast the muscular and imposing Brian Thompson is the impulsive and intimidating Waterbull with a hair trigger temper. The legendary Rhee Brothers, Simon and Phillip Rhee also make appearances as vicious Viet Cong – the genius in Lettich affords them the opportunity to boast their unparalleled taekwondo skills, with the Rhees being amongst the most superior kickers to ever grace the silver screen. This would be a few short years before Philip Rhee would unveil the ground breaking ‘BEST OF THE BEST’ (1989) considered by many to be one of the first examples of a martial arts drama done right – or as Scott Adkins more aptly described it ‘a sports drama.’
Lettich has predated the likes of Michael Bay or Jerry Bruckheimer, the colour palates in ‘ONLY THE STRONG’ (1993) and ‘DOUBLE IMPACT’ (1991) are rich and vibrant – traits seen in his much of his large and impressive body of work. A frequent collaborator and close friend of Jean Claude van Damme, Lettich was the cinematic auteur to make action films sexy and alluring during the 80s and 90s, which is why he is so fondly remembered by many of us youths who grew up in the VHS era. It was because of him, that young chaps like me had posters of Jean Claude Van Damme and Mark Dacascos on our bedroom walls – next to Cindy Crawford and Elle MacPherson, no less. For us, we adorned our walls with these action heroes serving us our inspirations to get into shape, learn how to fight and be powerful men. Certainly in this era, where male identity is often debated and traditional roles ridiculed, the films by Sheldon Lettich forever resonate for us men who grew in his era of cinematic dominance. And yet, with people such as Viking Samurai forging a renaissance of these films through his YouTube channel the younger generation can appreciate and draw influence from the works of a brilliant film maker.
As a personal side note, a young Australian IFBB Pro League bodybuilding champion and good friend of mine Ivanko Rakoci has cited many of Lettich’s films with great fondness – coincidentally his build and look is reminiscent of the actions physiques of that era. In many ways, Lettich had a hand in forging the concept of strong male identity through his various cinematic works.
Though somewhat conjecture, it is perhaps prophetic on the part of Lettich that his collaboration with Dux would go on to devise some of the finest action films of the late 80s and early 90s. And Brian Thompson himself creating memorable villainous roles in (but not limited to) ‘COBRA’ (1986) and ‘MORTAL KOMBAT ANNIHILATION’ (1997). Had ‘FIREFIGHT’ been released back in the 1980s, it might have changed the career trajectory of Lettich and his collaborators – so perhaps its dormancy was a good thing.
Unresoundingly, this was an honour to be one of the first movie critics in the world to view and review what is essentially a piece of lost media. Thankfully, this was merely kept dormant and did not become a fabled piece of cinematic history lost to the rigors of time. It would have been a precursor, a footnote and a teaser piece to demonstrate what the legendary Sheldon Lettich could offer; and yet paradoxically, isn’t completely reflective of the genres he would dominate with supremacy in 80s and 90s.
FIREFIGHT will premiere exclusively on Viking Samurai’s channel on 2 March 2023. https://www.youtube.com/@VikingSamurai
Vance Ang has primarily been professionally published in bodybuilding and fitness since 2005, having written extensively for hardcopy publications such as Australian IRONMAN and FLEX; but also for e-publications such as RAW Muscle and more recently the media platform, The Evolution of Bodybuilding. He is a Melbourne based policy and strategy consultant currently undertaking his post graduate study in Law. In addition to bodybuilding, conservative politics and Savate (French Kickboxing), he has long been a fan of movies and cinema of all genres – subsequently prompting an interest in modern story telling, that being script writing. He is in the process of writing his first horror novel ‘Providence’
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