My girlfriend has a four-disc DVD set of the famed Billy Blanks Tae Bo workouts. Apparently Blanks is quite the celebrity in Japan – or at least was in the early 2000s – and she had picked up the DVDs while living there. I sat in on a few workout sessions. They were hard work, and Blanks was an entertaining host with his energetic chanting of nonsensical phrases like “ya gotta fight to stay alive” and his hysterical meditative wind down. I had no idea Blanks had, at one point in time, a movie career until I stumbled across my friend’s VHS copy of Expect No Mercy (1995). The movie was, as expected, awful, but oddly endearing, if only for Billy’s terrible performance, which contained none of the energy of his Tae Bo videos. You can imagine my glee when I discovered that, in the 1990s, Blanks had teamed up with the legendary “Rowdy” Roddy Piper for not one, but two movies. I’ll start with their latter effort, simply because its title is funnier…


USA, 1995, Steve Cohen

I’ve used the Ghanaian poster above, rather than a VHS or DVD cover, for two reasons. Firstly, because I love Ghanaian movie posters, and secondly, because I genuinely hope that Tough and Deadly made a splash in Ghana. This cheap and cheesy action flick didn’t receive the attention it (sort of) deserved in its home country, but perhaps, just maybe, the Ghanaian people saw it for the work of genius that it is. The Ghanaian poster also tells us that Tough and Deadly is the best sort of action film – the buddy-cop film, despite the fact that Piper and Blanks don’t play cops.

Tough and Deadly opens with a CIA agent, codename Quicksilver and played by Blanks, at the receiving end of vicious attack from a group of highly trained operatives. He’s fed a cocktail of drugs and cuffed, but Quicksilver is so Tough and Deadly that he manages to beat the fuckers off him and cause a horrendous car crash that kills his captors. Cut to Elmo Freech (Piper). Freech is an ex-cop, now private eye, and is just as Tough and Deadly as Quicksilver. After dealing with a simple case of skipping bail and murdering a perp in the process, Freech catches a glimpse of the unconscious Quicksilver in the hospital. Thinking there might be a few bucks to be made, he takes an interest in Quicksilver and winds up saving him from an assassination attempt. Quicksilver awakens, suffering from amnesia, and becomes best pals with Freech who gives him the new name “John Portland”. He joins Freech in his investigations of drug kingpin Milan (Sal Landi), who is certainly Tough and Deadly, but not as Tough and Deadly as Freech and Quicksilver. Freech has a solid partner in Quicksilver (now Portland), and, after a homoerotic workout montage that rivals Rocky III, he is Tougher and Deadlier than ever:

Tough and Deadly gives us a classic mismatched pair in Blanks and Piper. Except they aren’t mismatched at all. There’s no tension between the two. They fucking love each other from the moment their eyes meet! I suppose Piper is the wacky, laid back type, while Blanks is the straight-laced serious guy, but honestly, they’re both goofballs. The only time they ever have a serious disagreement is seen in this subtle and clever presentation of cultural differences:

Blanks may receive top billing, but this is Piper’s show all the way. I’m bias, I suppose, I’ve always had a soft spot for Piper. He’s easily the best wrestler-actor around, and he’s on fire here. Every line he spouts is a gag. Not all of them work, and Piper’s disappearing and reappearing facial hair is somewhat distracting, but he’s clearly having a blast in the role. Blanks on the other hand gives a stiff and dull performance. However, while he tries his hardest to suck the chemistry out of their relationship, even Blanks can’t ruin a brilliantly stupid tough guy moment like this:

Blanks makes up for his lack of charisma with his bad-ass fight moves. Strangely enough and despite being the hero, his character has the shit beaten out of him by almost everyone he engages in battle with to the point that the film seems to suggest Quicksilver masochistic leanings. But Blanks has definite skills – his needlessly high kicks and graceful leaps through the air are impressive indeed. Piper isn’t to be overshadowed though and throws in some brutal wrestler moves that are particularly fun in the film’s bar brawls.

For a straight-to-video effort, Tough and Deadly is surprisingly heavy on action. You get just about everything required. There’s hand-to-hand combat, squibs galore, kneecaps being shot, explosions and helicopters. Throw into the mix some entertaining villains and the great James Karen (Return of the Living Dead) and you’ve got yourself a fun hour and a half. Tough and Deadly only stumbles when it comes to its awful music score – I don’t think I’ve ever heard so many hammy, twinkling chimes used in a film before. It’s extremely irritating, but eventually I managed to train my ears to allow the sounds of punching and kicking to drown out the disgracefully generic score.

Tough and Deadly, much like its stars, is a mostly forgotten relic of the 1990s. It’s a shame really. It has all the ingredients for a successful action film, and successful it is. Despite its straight-to-video roots, it manages to shit all over any shaky-cam, high contrast, overly serious “action” turd that Hollywood farts out today. Find a copy of Tough and Deadly and remember how far a low budget could take you in 1995.