Ruffians are running the town in Arse End Of Nowhere, and the sheriff can’t stop them. A mysterious Stranger with a mysterious past rolls into town, all mysteriously, and starts dishing out some brutal street justice. We’ve seen the movie a hundred times, but is it enough that in this 1995 Fritz Kiersch The Stranger is a woman?
Well, yes. It is. Sounds cheesy, but casting Kathy Long in the title role really does knock this otherwise mundane martial-arts vengeance movie up a notch. It gives what’s normally an absolute sausage-fest of a genre an exciting new dynamic if nothing else but because the arse-kicking Stranger is a good foot shorter than all of her assailants. Plus you have the obligatory fights starting up because of them sexually harassing her, which is a completely different type of toxic masculinity than just taking a dislike to some bloke’s face. It also means that the Bechdel Test, an absolute minimal hurdle for any script to cross, gets noticeably leaped over with contemptible ease.
That Kathy Long can pull off the role with some reasonable acting is an absolute bonus. It’s clear that she was hired for her notable kick-boxing skills, even if the director only has a rudimentary understanding of how to show them off, and it’s hardly the most taxing of parts. But she manages to bring enough to the proceedings to make her not just a pair of legs, in either capacity, even if it occasionally uses the Dolph Lundgren as The Punisher approach. Her wardrobe is limited in more ways than one, but once the story kicks in it kind of makes sense and you can ignore the attempts at cheesecake, even during the most perfunctory of sex scenes.
The rest of the cast are passable, with everyone getting a couple of standout moments. Andrew Divoff is suitably sleazy as the Tai-Chi practicing main bad guy, Eric Pierpoint does a decent job as the local Sheriff, and Ginger Lynn plays an amazing villain. There’s even a young Danny Trejo turning up and showing us how people make their path to glory through a lot of hard work. They all do the best they can with Gregory Poirier’s script, which manages to roll between hitting all the beats down to the minute, trying to squeeze in producer demanded moments that have no business being there, and some quite poignant and heartfelt moments.
One of the biggest bits of work is with the director managing to shoot the whole thing like a classic western on a budget and with everyone on motorbikes. It’s more TV orientated, like The Lone or Colt 45, than Magnificent Seven or even Rawhide, but it’s there and it adds an appreciable tone to everything. When the more outlandish elements kick in, this really helps as you are primed to be thinking in tropes rather than realities, and the eventual Weird West reveal feels in place and well earned. I especially like that the twist is never made explicit in the dialogue, even if it’s written scrawled in crayon in the sub-text.
The only major downside in all of this is that the story, along with some of the aforementioned costuming, is fuelled by misogyny. Bad guys get killed for trying to sexually assault the stranger, not because she’s been killing their comrades with gleeful abandon in broad daylight, and townsfolk pick sides because a woman wants to keep her man. There is also a pretty violent (though, thankfully, not explicit) rape scene that keeps on getting replaying in flashbacks, which is effectively the trigger for the whole story. Obviously, they are trying to do something beyond those cliches, and for the 90s it was quite a progressive concept, but the bedrock of it remains what are seen as necessary, but still sexist elements.
So, not quite the feminist breakout movie that it could have been, when viewed 25 years later. But it’s still pretty damn good at what it does well, and it lands just on the right side of effort for you to forgive the bits it does ham-fistedly. There are certainly better martial-arts movies out there, but the moments it has are entertaining and suitably squicky to let you give up a hearty cheer. It manages to push its way into being a Treasure by having a go at a different underdog story, adding in as much charm as it can muster, and just being, on balance, an enjoyable watch.