Color, 1991, 92 mins. 26 secs.
Directed by Kelly Makin
Starring Jalal Merhi, Cynthia Rothrock, Bolo Yeung
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray) (US RA HD) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)

TC 2000
Color, 1993, 95 mins. 4 secs.
Directed by T.J. Scott
Starring Bolo Yeung, Jalal Merhi, Billy Blanks, Bobbie Phillips, Matthias Hues
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray) (US RA HD), NSM Records (Blu-ray & DVD) (Germany R0 HD/PAL) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), Boulevard Entertainment (DVD) (UK R2 PAL)

Color, 1996, 88 mins. 45 secs.
Directed by J. Stephen Maunder
Starring Jalal Merhi, Bolo Yeung, Cynthia Rothrock, Ong Soo Han
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray) (US RA HD) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), Platinum (DVD) (US R1 NTSC)

Color, 2000, 94 mins. 29 secs.
Directed by J. Stephen Maunder
Starring Jalal Merhi, Cynthia Rothrock, Loren Avedon, Cater Wong, Mike Chow, Nicholas Celozzi
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray) (US RA HD) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), New Concorde (DVD) (US R1 NTSC)

The world of '90s action VHS movies Tiger Clawswould be very different without the presence of Tiger ClawsJalal Merhi, a Lebanese martial artist who turned actor and producer with his own company, Film One, started at the tail end of the '80s. Frequently serving as a producer, his company ended up showcasing big home video action favorites like Cynthia Rothrock, Billy Blanks, and Bolo Yeung. Film One started out of the gate strong with Tiger Claws, a starring vehicle for Merhi and marital artist Cynthia Rothrock who had recently transitioned from Hong Kong films to U.S. actioners with the two China O'Brien adventures and Martial Law. Thanks to a distribution deal with Shapiro-Glickenhaus Entertainment via MCA/Universal (which also boosted films like Shakedown and Maniac Cop 2), Tiger Claws took video stores by storm with its distinctive cover art popping up all over the place in 1991.

The plot of Tiger Claws is a simple but catchy one. On the mean streets of Toronto -- uh, New York City -- dogged cop Linda Masterson (Rothrock) is sick of dressing up like hookers to catch low-level perps. Back at the office she spies an opportunity for reassignment when she looks into the murder of a martial artist named Tanaka, who has scratches on his face and crushed internal organs. Tiger ClawsMore seasoned, ponytail-wearing cop Tarek Richards (Merhi) gets the more dangerous assignments firing bullets all over warehouse districts, but what they both have in common is great fighting skills Tiger Clawsthat come in handy for kicking bad guys in the face. After an assignment goes explosively wrong, Tarek gets into hot water and ends up having to unite with Linda for what now looks like a serial killer targeting martial artists. One of the unfortunate victims is the pissy star of Bill Pickell's Karate Show, who slices watermelons on women's tummies and ends up getting killed in his dressing room. Now it becomes clear that the killer known as the "Death Dealer" has a unique weapon: "tiger claws," an ancient technique that must be mastered if our heroes have any hope of finishing this case with their lives intact.

Though the film is set up as a murder mystery for the first half hour, it shouldn't be much surprise when you look at the billing that a sinister-looking Bolo Yeung is tied to the crimes as he goes around scouting the big martial arts tournaments. Along the way you get a lot of fight scenes, pounding synth music, clunky cop dialogue, and Rothrock being a great scene stealer as always. Plus you get extra treats like a karate tournament where Merhi gets to show off his machismo by grabbing boiling-hot chains, sticking fighting, bloody finger scratching, neck snapping, and a big showdown in a warehouse with cardboard boxes flying all over the screen.

TC 2000Film One stayed busy churning out more action films in the TC 2000immediate wake of this film including two more starring Merhi, Fearless Tiger (which was actually shot first but released much later) and Talons of the Eagle, the latter starring martial artist Billy Blanks. The project initially begun as Tiger Claws II quickly morphed into something much weirder with TC 2000 (that's "TC" as in "Tiger Claws," but they changed it to mean "Tracker Communicators"), a sci-fi martial arts epic that paired up Merhi and Blanks in their most widely distributed showcase together (again thanks to a pickup from MCA/Universal for VHS and laserdisc).

This time we get a radical change of pace as we leap into the future world of 2020 (not 2000) where environmental devastation has left the wealthiest survivors sheltering underground, with the survivors left on the surface scavenging for resources. (Yep, pretty much like A Boy and His Dog but with lots of martial arts instead of sex or a telepathic canine.) Jason Storm (Blanks) is a TC 2000security guard in a world where the lower classes are pitted in brutal fights for basic TC 2000resources, and he tries to keep order with his plucky partner, Zoey (Phillips). However, trouble brews when the scheming Niki Picasso (Merhi) seems to be up to something apocalyptic and must be stopped. Salvation could lie with above-ground martial arts master Master Sumai (Yeung), who can pull off a great combat trick involving food on the other side of a door. Basically an excuse to have lots of fights in dark futuristic silo settings, TC 2000 is nonstop fun hokum with fun turns by Blanks (especially his incredible flattop haircut) and Yeung; for some reason Merhi gave himself top billing here, but it's a supporting baddie role that barely registers.

Finally in 1996, the actual Tiger Claws II did roll around. The MCA/Universal days were long over by this point and it got much lower distribution from MVP on VHS, but the fun's still there as we pick up with a montage of tiger claw martial arts slayings to get us in the TC 2000mood. This time there's a supernatural slant added in (something that continues in the third film), though that isn't half TC 2000as discombobulating as the surprise appearance here of Lazar Rockwood, the DIY Canadian wonder who starred in the SOV head-smasher Beyond the Seventh Door. This time the action shifts to San Francisco, and any plot synopsis will spoil the hell out of the prior film so be warned. Linda has noticed some copycat tiger claw killings and jetted over from New York to check it out, alerting her old partner that something seems to be up. Tarek thinks something even bigger and more dangerous is at play, and of course he's correct -- especially since Chong (Yeung) has been busted out of prison after being carted away at the end of part one. It all ties to the impending Chinese New Year, which also marks the centennial of a venerable martial arts tournament and celebration that could open the mortal to a mystical realm.

Obviously the whole tone here is different so many years later, with our stars looking a bit different (Merhi has a more flattering haircut, for one) and Rothrock, though still underused, given a bit more butt kicking this time around instead of just sitting out Tiger Claws IIthe finale like last time. As just about everyone who's seen this has noticed, Tiger Claws IIthere's a strong Mortal Kombat vibe here likely due to that film being out a year before, and in terms of action there's more than enough here to keep you engaged with Toronto yet again subbing in not all that successfully for a major U.S. city.

That brings us to the third and final film in the official series, Tiger Claws III, which was completed in 2000 but mostly got released in 2001, most notably by Roger Corman's New Concorde on DVD and VHS. Here the filmmakers were in a bit of a bind since a film without Rothrock would be heresy, but they didn't have her around very long. That means she gets second billing here but actually has very little screen time, a factor that earned this one a bad rep as it focused much more on Merhi's character alone. Here another VHS-era action figure, The King of the Kickboxers' Loren Avedon, takes the Tiger Claws IIIlead villain role as Stryker, a megalomaniac Tiger Claws IIImartial artist who wants to bring three martial artists back from the beyond to help him conquer the city's underworld under his iron fist. He and his supernatural trio of Chinese masters (brought back at the beginning via magic into suits of armor) are really the main attraction here with Tarek shuffling off to learn another ancient martial arts practice, the Black Tiger, from the wise Master Jin (Wong). Much fighting mayhem ensues.

You really have to give this one credit for its audacious ending, which is either a huge middle finger to the viewer or a goofy walk far out on a limb that few other action movies would even dare to take. There's also a stronger cable TV vibe here than the more theatrical quality of the prior two films (right down to the cheapo end credits), but that doesn't stop it from being a fun time killer if you're in the right frame of mind for a bunch of lightning-tinged martial arts silliness. The fact that this one is Bolo free might be an even bigger issue than the sidelining of Rothrock, or perhaps it's an even tie; in any case, it's the one franchise entry that really divides viewers for good reason and makes one wonder where the heck they could have gone if part four had been in the cards.

Though all four films have been floating around on and off through the home video era with masters now dating back decades, Tiger Claws IIIVinegar Syndrome has decided to deck out Merhi's Tiger Claws IIImagnum opus with the full VSA treatment -- meaning they're limited 5,000-unit editions containing fold-out posters and stacked with extras that put the majority of recent Criterion releases to shame. All of the films have been given fresh 4K scans from their camera negatives and look stunning; if you've seen this before, you won't believe how much better they look here from top to bottom. Each has a DTS-HD MA English 2.0 track replicating the original stereo mixes as well, which are quite entertaining during the fight scenes when the music and extreme sound effects come into play. Optional English subtitles are provided as well. TC 2000 gets its own standalone edition with extras including a commentary by Merhi and Blanks, a Merhi interview featurette called "An Orgy of Action" (11m6s), "Jason Takes the Underworld" (9m43s) with Blanks, an archival electronic press kit featurette (9m25s), and a behind-the-scenes video presskit (3m28s) with some great raw coverage from the set. Merhi is a very soft-spoken subject and commentator but has some good stories here about the state of his company at the time and the development of this film from its initial sequel conception; however, Blanks is the real attraction here as he's a great storyteller and very charismatic as he enthusiastically recalls his martial arts background, getting cast in his first Film One project, and getting to show off different fighting styles for the camera.

All three Tiger Claws films are presented together in a two-disc set, with the first two parts occupying the first disc with new audio commentaries by Merhi. Disc two features Tiger Claws III (also with Merhi commentary) and Tiger Claws all of the video Tiger Claws supplements starting with "Sharpening the Claws" (27m16s), a pretty great account of the making of the first film featuring Rothrock (with awesome hair) and Merhi telling the story of how the whole film came together at a transitional moment in the Canadian film industry, serving as a showcase for traditional martial arts styles on camera. They also recall the very cold shooting conditions in January, the complications of bringing a dog to the set, and plenty of other stories from the trenches. The duo return in to cover the other remaining entries in "Martial Arts Porn" (17m59s) and "Mystical Claws" (18m46s) to cover the reason for the long gap between sequels, the reforming of Bolo's character in part two, the radically evolving hairstyles, the increase in Chinese mysticism, Leung's wrangling over getting paid and the disappointing translation issue that led to him not being in part three, the slowed-down market by the time the third film arrived, the introduction of Wong, the budget issues that led to the omission of a prologue, Rothrock's pregnancy that affected her last role in the series, and the mechanics necessary to keep her involved as much as possible. Finally the set rounds out with video trailers for all three films in the series, which will also remind you how awkward some of them look when presented open matte.

Reviewed on November 25, 2021.