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Right to Fight: Kicking Ass with Canada’s First Action Heroes

When Hollywood says based on a true story—okay, what percentage?” asks Mick McNamara, one half of Canada’s first team of action heroes. “Is it 98 or two percent bullshit? 

According to Mick, the movies he made with his brother Martin are 100 percent real. “A lot of the stunts you see when Martin and I are running through the water and mountains,” he begins, describing a scene from one of his movies in which the twins are being shot at by a sniper, “those are all heavy-duty, [50-caliber] rounds. I have a buddy who’s a sharpshooter. I trusted him to use his discretion to get close as close as he could to my hand with real ammunition. Later, I asked him how close he got. He held up two fingers and said maybe an inch and a half.”

Mick and Martin McNamara only released two films to the public. Twin Dragon Encounter (1986) and Dragon Hunt (1990) are movies cult film enthusiasts spend their lives in search of, a veritable holy grail of raw passion and low-budget chutzpah. In the films, the McNamaras (known as the Twin Dragons) fight their way through gangs of punks, ninjas-for-hire, and bounty hunters, using only their wits and their fists. But there’s a catch.

Twin Dragon Encounter and Dragon Hunt were part of a planned trilogy and the Dragons’ third film, their crowning achievement, hangs in limbo. Gangs—of film critics, distributors, and Canadian bureaucrats—have conspired to have their revenge on the Twin Dragons since the early eighties. “I finished the movie,” Mick explains, “but I decided I wasn’t going to release it or sell it. We premiered it [in 2003] and had a nice party. Martin asked me why we weren’t selling the movie, and I said, ‘You and I are ready to shut down our clubs. We’ve lost everything. No one else knows about this conspiracy.’ Why would we sell it?”

The McNamara Brothers opened their first martial arts school in Ontario in 1972. Called the Twin Dragons Kung Fu Club, it was years ahead of the MMA trend and trained students in a blend of styles including Hung Gar, Chuy Li Fut, and American kickboxing. The school was so successful that the Twin Dragons were able to expand, and with each new school, their name and popularity grew. Sensing they were on the cusp of something big, they broke into film. Their first acting roles were in small Canadian films and American productions shot in Canada. Karl Adhihetty, a student of the McNamaras, spoke with cult film blog Narnarland in 2011 about his work on their films. He recalled, “In 1980/81, the twins got quite a big break with a part in the film ‘Dirty Tricks’ starring Elliot Gould and Kate Jackson (filmed in Montreal). Mick grew increasingly frustrated that he could not get anybody interested in producing a film that would put the twins in the Lead role. After years of ridiculing Chuck Norris’ acting and fighting ability, Mick decided that he would produce a film and finance it himself.”

The twins’ frustration was warranted. Telefilm Canada, a Crown corporation controlled by the Canadian government, was the only state-sponsored organization funding film production in Canada at the time and they wouldn’t put up money for the kind of movie Mick wanted to make. “They were scared shitless,” says Mick, “Times have changed a lot, but in Canada they thought they couldn’t make those movies. Action pictures have a much better chance of selling than a culture film. But they would fund the cultural films instead.”

So Mick and Martin looked inward. Adhihetty alleged that the twins went into debt to make Twin Dragon Encounter. “If I remember correctly,” he told Narnarland, “[it] was filmed on a budget of around $35,000 in around 1984! This is the number I remember but I have never confirmed it. I think Mick financed this film on his own by taking a mortgage on some real estate that he owned. In fact, it was the island property where we filmed the movie!”

Twin Dragon Encounter was at least partially self-financed but the twins also used a loophole in Canadian tax laws at the time to secure outside support. “Canadian tax shelter films” were movies that weren’t funded by the government but benefited from a rule which allowed third-party financiers to write off some or all of their contributions. Paul Corupe, founder of Canadian genre history blog Canuxploitation, has covered the era extensively on his site. He estimates that these movies were made from the mid-seventies through the late-eighties. In the beginning it was a 100 percent write-off, but that changed in the early eighties. “They thought the rule was being abused,” he explains. “They took the 100 percent down to 50 percent, then the 50 percent write-off ended in 1987. There was a big boom right at the end of the eighties as everybody tried to get in and get their films finished before the tax shelter rule was officially wiped out.”

Mick found a partner in Anthony Kramreither, a producer on low-budget thrillers like American Nightmare (1983) and Thrillkill (1984), and released Twin Dragon Encounter straight-to-video in 1986. It was unlike anything else happening in Canada at the time. Says Corupe: “There weren’t really any Canadian action films. Ted Kotcheff was a Canadian director who made films all around the world, most notably in Canada during the sixties and seventies, but also First Blood in 1982. I wouldn’t call that Canadian in any way, but within four years of that the McNamaras started working on their own film project. You can tell because they specifically criticize other [American] action films within Twin Dragon Encounter. There’s this idea that they’re the real action heroes and everybody in Hollywood is fake and plastic.”

You might even argue the McNamaras are realer than real. They exude a kind of hyper-authenticity in which the real world can’t match up. Everyone but the twins are fakes and frauds, highlighting the fact that they aren’t just men—they’re real men. Twin Dragon Encounter begins with the brothers saving a woman from a group of preening rednecks. The fight scene stands out not just for its choreography but also because it looks a little too real. And that’s because it is. The twins land kicks that really connect. Then they do it again in another scene. And another. It carries over into Dragon Hunt.

“I told [Dragon Hunt director Charles Weiner] we should just go for it and make it a free-for-all because we didn’t have the time or money to stage this shit,” says Mick. “We said, ‘When it comes to the face, try not to put your knuckles or toes in someone’s teeth or nose, but otherwise, go for it.’”

What could possibly go wrong?

“I had a fight scene,” remembers Mick, laughing, “and the guy kicked me so fucking hard with his steel-toe boots in the mid-section that I couldn’t remember how long I was out. When I finally got my breath back—I was on my knees forever and thought I was gonna puke my guts out—I found out he was high on coke. He got a little excited.”

The reality of the fights in Twin Dragon Encounter exposes the staged nature of the twins’ enemies. They encounter imposters everywhere they go. Soon after departing from their dojo for a weekend vacation with their girlfriends they run afoul of a group of truckers in a restaurant. The two camps exchange insults (with one offended trucker deadpanning “Don’t call me a Mac truck!”) and another all-too-real fight breaks out. The twins wreck the truckers in under a minute. Then they tear through more posturing macho men, proving they’re the only true bad asses. It’s not an unusual trope in action movies, lots of actors like to play tough, but it’s taken to a level of artistry by Mick and Martin.

In a lesser film, quirks like these would be enough. The anti-naturalism of the dialogue paired with the absurdity of the fight scenes would place Twin Dragon Encounter and Dragon Hunt alongside fun second-tier action oddities like The Raiders of Atlantis (1983) and Strike Commando (1987). However, the key to the success of the films—what elevates them to classic status—isn’t the McNamaras or their fighting skills. They’re fantastic, as expected, but all good action movies need a great villain. Twin Dragon Encounter and Dragon Hunt have just that.

“Watching Dragon Hunt, I was particularly struck by the character of Jake who I think dominates both films,” observes Corupe. “He says things like ‘Tick tock, time to rock!,’ these things that make no sense, they’re super weird, but put his character over as a cartoon villain.”

Jake, a Canadian actor known only as B. Bob, is an aspiring Generalissimo and cross between John Lydon and Napoleon. Mohawked and chomping a cigar, Jake leads a gang of punk mercenaries and a people’s army to overtake the McNamaras’ island. He eventually accomplishes this in the second film, but as Corupe notes, most of his time on-screen involves bizarre rhymes and ranting at subordinates while playing with army men. It’s a singularly weird performance in an already strange series of films, made all the more bizarre by B. Bob’s backstory.

“B. Bob and a lot of his gang were local punk band members in Toronto at the time,” explains Corupe. “There’s this band called Bunchoffuckinggoofs that were mainstays in the Toronto eighties punk scene. They were dirty punk guys who played shows and ran a 24-hour boozecan out of their apartment. B. Bob wasn’t part of them but he was one of their friends. Someone asked the band about getting some actors so they recommended B. Bob.”

“I had an ad in the paper,” recalls Mick, “and Jake walked in dressed the way he is in the movie. I looked at him almost five minutes into the thing and said, ‘You know what? I had a buddy I was gonna use but he got killed in a car accident.’ So I told [Jake] he was perfect.”

The combination of the McNamaras’ skills and Jake’s charisma made Twin Dragon Encounter a surprise hit. Copies flew off store shelves and it became a mainstay of late-night Canadian cable. Unfortunately, the McNamaras’ luck was beginning to run out, because concurrent to the production of Twin Dragon Encounter, the twins started to butt heads with the one group that would prove to be their greatest nemesis.

“[The Canadian government] are my enemies to this day,” says Mick, beginning an especially vitriolic rant. If it isn’t already clear, it doesn’t take much to set him off. He has a habit of answering questions with hyperbole. Ask him about any action star from the eighties and he’ll describe in detail why they’re a joke. But the Canadian government seems to be an especially sore subject. “They would never dare give any money to an action film,” he tells me, fuming over the bureaucracy and politics of Canadian arts funding. “The proof of that is in the second film. I said to them, ‘I’m not freeloading here. I’ll pay the money back. My first picture made money, so work with me.’ They wouldn’t finance it.”

Not only did Telefilm Canada rebuff Mick’s request for money to fund Dragon Hunt but, worse, the government proper began cracking down on one of the twins’ side hustles. Around the time the twins began acting, they also got into promoting live kickboxing exhibitions throughout Ontario. According to Mick, in 1983, the province’s athletic commission tried to ban live kickboxing. The twins continued promoting their events anyway but one commissioner in particular went out of his way to make their lives hell. “Unfortunately, I wasn’t aware of how the large the conspiracy was,” he explains, “and how he screwed Martin and I. Every time we tried to do a show—inch by inch, bit by bit—he would fuck us. He would create new regulations. Other boxing promoters died too, nobody has been successful there for three decades.”

If you can insert video, please add this:

[https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SqdeeILvTuM&feature=emb_title]

If you can’t do video, add this:

The fight with the Ontario Athletic Commission inspired aspects of both Twin Dragon Encounter and Dragon Hunt. Billy Butt was a musician who had recently split from his prog rock band, Paradox, when Mick and Martin approached him to write music for their movies. “‘Right to Fight’ was about the trouble they were having with the commission in Toronto for putting on live shows,” says Butt. “They put on all these live shows, but they got denied and couldn’t get a permit for the next one. They were squawking about having this right to fight and the commission blocking them.” The music took an even more confrontational turn in Dragon Hunt. “[‘That’s What Makes a Man’] is about a man being aware of the injustices of the world. He’s a man who cares deeply and is offended by injustice.”

If Twin Dragon Encounter was a mind-blowing exhibition of Canadian excess, then Dragon Hunt is the first film turned to 11. It’s not just that they do everything they did in the first film again. (Spoiler: they do!) No, they go so far over-the-top they lose the plot. Animals die horrifically violent deaths. The twins fight a chain-swinging hillbilly known as the Beastmaster. Characters turn evil and do coke off broken glass in huts with thatched roofs. It’s hard to put into words the torrent of emotions one experiences while watching the film.  What’s clear is the twins wanted to go BIGGER.

But Mick found more resistance within the Canadian film and arts communities. As he remembers it, the twins sold out their first week in Canadian theaters, beating out 13 American films. That still wasn’t enough for critics, who savaged Dragon Hunt. He seems bitter over the event to this day: “I had to beg, borrow and steal for press, including one critic who wrote Heavenly Bodies (1984). That movie had $15 million. I could’ve made 30 movies for that money.”

It’s hard to tell how successful the film was in its theatrical run because there are no records of regional box office totals. Cineplex Odeon Films handled its Canadian theatrical run but the company went bankrupt in 2001. Compounding that, Mick sold the rights to a number of different companies across mediums, with Cineplex handling the Canadian home video market and Alliance Atlantis Vivafilm getting the TV rights. American distributor Shapiro-Glickenhaus Entertainment, known for violent action and horror films like The Exterminator (1980) and Maniac Cop (1988), picked up the rights to the film in the U.S. Oddly, the company chose to sit on it rather than rolling out a release in American theaters.

Even if the twins could have enjoyed the success of Dragon Hunt it would have been bittersweet. Imitators began popping up, and according to Corupe, “by the early nineties there was a definite shift towards action filmmaking in Canada as horror started to recede.” Franchises like Snake Eater (1989) and Tiger Claws (1992) drew inspiration from Mick and Martin both in their choice of regional locations and plot structures. Corupe notes, “[Jalal Merhi] specifically was drawing on what the Twin Dragons started. He also, like them, was a martial artist who had gone to the states and competed in tournaments, and decided he wanted to be a movie star so he started producing his own films starring himself as a kickboxing hero.”

The surge of interest in Canadian action films should have propelled the Twin Dragons to international stardom. Mick and Martin even tried to capitalize on the momentum by beginning work on their next movie, Right to Fight, but the two continued to run into problems with the Canadian government over their live kickboxing events, draining time and resources. Worse, midway through production Mick caught wind of someone trying to infringe on his brand. That someone? Jackie Chan. 

Mick claims he sued a shell company set up for the production of Chan’s Twin Dragons (1992), to no avail. “They were just thieves,” he says, before observing that the film’s actual distributor, Miramax, fought him tooth and nail for the title. He was forced to change Right to Fight to The Real Twin Dragons to counter the production and protect his intellectual property. “In Canada,” he begins, getting especially worked up, “it was released [in 1999] in like 2,400 theaters and had some serious money for advertising. I had people calling me and saying, ‘Hey Mick, your movie’s out.’ But I had to explain that it wasn’t my movie!”

The years of legal battles with both the Canadian government and Miramax were too much for Mick. In 2003, he quietly premiered The Real Twin Dragons for friends and family, then shelved the film without an official release. He and his brother stayed involved in the Canadian martial arts community, and occasionally would talk about their films to whoever would listen. It was the end of the Twin Dragons.

…or was it?

Paul Corupe created his blog Canuxploitation in 1999. His goal was to chronicle the history of Canadian B-movies. The films he and his contributors write about are the unloved, unwanted, and underappreciated of Canada’s weird past. The one thread running through the coverage of all of the movies on the site is a clear love and passion for the untold histories of Canadian madmen and women, the McNamara Brothers included. One of the first films he tracked down was Dragon Hunt. “There was a short-lived channel in the mid-aughts called the Drive-In Channel,” he says. “They would show different kinds of drive-in films and they showed it. I enjoyed it so much that I wanted to track down Twin Dragon Encounter.”

Paul wasn’t alone. The need of cable companies to churn content and the expansion of access to the Internet at the turn of the 21st-century helped Canadians discover hundreds of obscure regional movies. Word of mouth about the McNamaras spread. In 2016, the Laser Blast Film Society screened Dragon Hunt for an audience with Mick in attendance. People lost their minds. The response was so enthusiastic, in fact, that it gave Mick an idea. Post-screening he showed Right to Fight, rebranded again under its original title, to one of the event’s programmers. “He said, ‘Holy fuck, it was non-stop fighting. I’ve never seen that many cops get thumped,’” recalls Mick, proudly.

Mick’s descriptions of Right to Fight make the movie seem even more over-the-top, less plausible, not at all like something that could exist in the really real world. A fever dream of high kicks and quick fists. A magnum opus of hyper-masculine aggression. The vague references to his struggles with the Ontario Athletic Commission are gone, he says, now made literal in the form of the twins fighting the commissioner who screwed them. Or an approximation. It isn’t clear what he means. But over the last two years Mick has been reshooting the movie and cutting together scenes from the original version of the film with his new footage to incorporate more non-fiction elements pulled from his life.

Like the gangs, the bikers, and the cops. The twins fight everyone. Some of the foes are real, or maybe they all are? It’s hard to keep up with Mick when he’s describing the movie. He claims the twins do everything we expect of them, then they do even more. One scene, he tells me excitedly, involves Mick and Martin fighting off close to 40 men. I’m pretty sure they didn’t do that in real life, but can be sure I’m sure? It’s here that I realize I’m having trouble separating Mick’s movies from reality. Is he bullshitting me? Am I getting the 98 percent or the two?

When I ask Mick about finishing the film, he’s evasive on details. He doesn’t have a release date in mind because he’s shooting still more material. There’s only one thing he’s able to tell me. He begins in on another rant but then has a moment of clarity. He stops mid-sentence and says, “I wanna shove it up Canada’s ass.”

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About Robert Skvarla

Robert Skvarla is a freelance writer from Philadelphia. His focuses include conspiracy culture, fringe communities, and new religious movements. He has written for Atlas Obscura, Philadelphia City Paper, and Cinepunx, and served as a programmer for the Cinedelphia Film Festival.

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