Some karate people are training in karate for a karate tournament run by a karate dwarf and a Nazi. Only some of them qualify, so Chico, the karate dwarf, goes in search of the best karate people in the world although he finds himself in competition with the Nazi’s Japanese nemesis who is recruiting his own karate team of karate people for the karate tournament. Cue lots of karate.
One reason I wanted to check this movie out is that the original UK VHS release bears the following legend: “The greatest Hollywood Martial Arts movie!” whereas the film is actually an independent production from South Africa. That’s some quality barefaced lying right there. In fact, as these things go, the movie’s okay. There’s a campy title sequence with the credits projected onto the leading man’s ripped torso (the word “karate” appears a lot). The tournament setting owes everything to Enter The Dragon although it lacks the Bruce Lee flick’s quality, style and iconography. The music isn’t a patch on Lalo Schifrin’s … Dragon score either; lame and cheesy, it even does that “dodgy oriental music” thing every time the Japanese nemesis appears. Tangential point of interest: Kill Or Be Killed may have been an influence on 1984’s The Karate Kid. Said nemesis is called Miyagi and one scene has a fly being caught with chopsticks mid-flight, predating the famous Karate Kid sequence by nearly a decade.
There are some attempts at humour here, most falling flat and almost all featuring the aforementioned Chico (Daniel DuPlessis), who – in context – turns out to be a surprisingly rounded character. The rest of the humour is delivered via the main couple, James Ryan and Charlotte Michelle, a handsome pair who seem to fall into gales of hysterical laughter wherever possible. He proposes: they laugh like matching drains. They invent a new kind of sail-car while staging a daring desert escape: they laugh like drunk pirates. He shows up to rescue her from a dungeon: they laugh heartily for a bit before he gets on with breaking her out while she continues to piss herself hollow. Come to think of it, I may have missed some kind of troubling mental health subtext on first viewing.
There are, of course, lots of spirited, if perhaps slightly clunky, karate sequences. Everybody, it seems, knows karate in South Africa with bar fights and building site brawls invariably turning into stiffly choreographed kickfests. Ryan adopts a weird “wind whistle” vocal effect for his fights throughout, which is slightly baffling, and he is the king of back-flips (elaborate Hong Kong-style wire-work here having been substituted with some trampolines). Also, there’s a reversed-film sequence to give the effect of him effortlessly jumping backwards up a hill which is quite endearing. Strangely, action packed as it is, Kill Or Be Killed isn’t particularly violent. It’s all relatively bloodless, the body count not memorably high. The whole point of the tournament is that it’s supposed to be to the death – hence the title and its USA alternative, Karate Killer – but this is forgotten during the fights themselves and when it looks like the stakes have been raised to “deadly” by the later rounds, everybody seems surprised.
Seemingly a semi-amateur production largely from the luminaries of the South African karate scene of the day (although IMDb tells me this was director Ivan Hall’s fourteenth feature), production values are surprisingly okay. Performances are a tad am-dram and the script is rudimentary but, all-in, Kill Or Be Killed makes for a diverting ninety minutes.