Karate babe Susanne Carter (Jillian Kesner) arrives in the Philippines searching for her sister, a reporter who has gone missing. Susanne discovers her sister was investigating Chuck Donner (Darby Hinton), an American involved in drug trafficking and prostitution alongside crime kingpin Eric Stollard (Ken Metcalfe, who also co-wrote the screenplay). When he isn’t twirling knives while admiring his muscles in the mirror, Chuck competes in his boss’ martial arts tournament, the Arena of Death where Susanne also proves her karate skills against an array of opponents. Despite warnings from concerned cop Tony (Tony Ferrer) and Malow (Chanda Romero), an undercover policewoman posing as Stollard’s girlfriend, Susanne keeps karate chopping closer to uncovering the truth, whilst somehow losing a lot of her clothes along the way.
Infamous as one of the worst exploitation hacks of all time, Filipino producer-director Cirio H. Santiago enjoyed a fruitful partnership with the legendary Roger Corman, dabbling in everything from blaxploitation to car chase pictures, horror films to cut-rate family movies aimed at undiscriminating children. His movies may have been largely awful, but they were successful and the prolific filmmaker was eventually appointed president of the Philippines Film Development Funds. Quite an achievement for the man who made Vampire Hookers (1979). With Firecracker a.k.a. Naked Fist, Santiago revived the T&A karate movie he first practiced with T.N.T. Jackson (1974) (“She’ll put you in traction!”) and would tackle again in Naked Vengeance (1985) and Angelfist (1993).
For his leading lady Santiago secured the services of Jillian Kesner, who besides carving a niche in the exploitation arena (e.g. T&A comedy Starhops (1978), kung fu cannibal horror Raw Force (1982) and dumb horror comedy Beverly Hills Vamp (1986)), was also semi-regular on sitcom Happy Days and a familiar face on many popular television shows of that time. In one of those strange quirks linking together the worlds of high art and exploitation, Kesner and her cinematographer husband Gary Graver (also porn director) were close friends with Orson Welles. Following his death they made repeated attempts to complete his unfinished The Other Side of the Wind (1976), right up until Kesner’s own untimely passing, aged 58, in late 2007.
Although the speeded-up fight sequences do her a disservice, Kesner has genuine athletic ability and embodies the film’s twin crucial components: she kicks butt convincingly and willingly bares all in the service of tawdry exploitation. Hence ludicrous scenes where Susanne escapes a gang of karate rapists while her flimsy dress gets torn away, piece by piece, leaving her in her underwear. Just in time for a, ahem, bouncy fight in a sawmill where one bad guy has his head bisected by a buzz saw. Losing her bra enables Susanne to deliver that fatal kick while another goon is gawping at her breasts. Dumb as this scene sounds, nudity played a part in many more “respectable” martial arts films, e.g. the Sister Streetfighter movies on which Firecracker seems loosely based, so one can’t fault Santiago for going the T&A route. Nevertheless, this is the kind of cheap and tacky martial arts movie made by people who either misunderstand the genre or harbour some contempt for its audience. Fights erupt at random with scarcely any attempt to contextualize them within a coherent narrative, while the stilted line readings delivered by an inept supporting cast make the dialogue sound even more risible.
Filipino exploitation regular Vic Diaz essays yet another corpulent sleazebag while soap opera actor Darby Hinton - who went on to star in the infamous Andy Sidaris B-actioner Malibu Express (1985) - is pretty insufferable as Chuck. The film’s most ludicrous stretch has Susanne react to the grisly discovery of her sister’s corpse by bedding her murderer - a known drug dealer and pimp! Chuck uses his twirling knives to rip off her clothes. She smacks him across the face. It is oh so romantic…
Santiago attempts to promote “Arnis” or the Philippine art of stick-fighting, but the climax proves something of a copout since although Susanne squares off against Chuck in the Arena of Death (unusually he is reluctant to fight and pleads: “Look, I’m sorry. There’s got to be a better way”) it is actually an obscure supporting character (Rey Malonzo) who brings the bad guys to justice. Hardened exploitation movie fans may recognise the soundtrack since it was stolen from the classic Shogun Assassin (1980).