Although I was just a child in the ’70s, my memories of the time are still quite vivid: shirtlessness ran rampant, afros knew no race and everyone — EVERYONE — practiced kung-fu. Exhibit A: Devil’s Express, a lovably terrible martial arts/horror hybrid that was the would-be star vehicle for never-was black action hero Warhawk Tanzania. Looking not unlike a genetic hybrid of Dr. J and Ludacris, Tanzania lacked any leading-man charisma or acting talent, which must mean he really was a good martial artist. Too bad that doesn’t come through on screen in his painfully deliberate movements and the sort of over-the-top reactions to being hit that make Jean-Claude Van Damme seem subtle.
The story is what you’d expect when Blaxploitation (gangs), kung-fu (Chinese dudes) and horror (a demon) cross paths: bad-tastic! (Although, frankly, it could’ve been badder.) Tanzania plays Luke Curtis, a self-proclaimed kung-fu master who hates the gangs tearing up his city streets but is “down” enough not to sell out to no jive turkey police, as he eloquently informs local cop Cris (Larry Fleischman): “The next time you try to recruit me into that pigpen of yours is the day I stop pulling my punches and ice you.” You dig???
Luke takes a break from murdering cops to get in touch with his Chi in China, but his no-good friend Rodan (Wilfredo Roldan) tags along and ends up stealing a 2,000 year-old amulet that was being used to seal an ancient demon in its tomb. Nice one, Rodan. Now free, the demon hops a slow boat from China, possessing a local man (genius makeup effects: paint eyeballs on top of eyelids!) and heads to New York, drawn by its desire to destroy the amulet. The beast is sensitive to the light (perhaps due to its ridiculous painted-on eyes?), so it heads into the subway tunnels to wreak havoc.
Meanwhile, an action movie breaks out: a Chinese gang, the Red Dragons, has decided to move in on the turf of Rodan’s gang, the Black Jets — er, Jacks. (Rodan, ironically: not black) Luke tries to talk Rodan out of starting a gang war, explaining that it’s “not what martial arts is all about.” It’s not?!? Screw that then! The Red Dragons and Black Jacks throw down in the most orderly rumble you’ll ever see: everyone pairs up evenly and fights one-on-one. Rarely has a fighting style seemed so impractical; why hit someone with a brick when I can somersault backwards and plié? Luckily, their punches miss by a good two feet, because with stock sound effects that resemble a pneumatic hammer crushing a soup can, I’d imagine that if anyone actually got hit, they’d die instantly. This is why gun violence isn’t such a bad thing.
Back in the HORROR portion of the tale, the demon, having shed the confines of the possessed Chinese man’s body, begins mutilating people in the subway tunnels. When it kills Rodan (hooray!), Luke thinks it’s the Red Dragons’ handiwork and rolls over to their turf to handle business. Cris tries to stop him, but he tells the copper the way it is in the streets: “You do it your legal, white way. I know who did this to my brother, and I’m gonna fix it.” Laws are for honkies!
Only after whupping some Dragon ass (they’re kind enough to attack him one at a time and stand with their heads jutting out so he can kick them accurately) does he realize that — oops — it wasn’t their fault. He accepts their explanation of a Chinese demon surprisingly quickly and proceeds to strap on his yellow fightin’ overalls — sans shirt — and head underground. The final battle is an epic one, including hallucinations, some shadowy interspecies dry humping and the death of the Swamp Thing. ‘Cuz that’s what happens when you mess with A Man Called ‘Hawk. You dig?