Exhibit Z in the case against the idea of true justice existing in the universe is the fact that “Devil’s Express” (aka “Gang Wars”) is only the second and final film starring the man with the greatest name in kung-fu movie history – Warhawk Tanzania. If we lived in the good universe, you could walk into any video store and buy a 10-pack of Warhawk Tanzania movies for about 15 bucks. His name would be rendered in 72-point font on the front cover. All you would probably need is “WARHAWK” and you’d know exactly what you’re getting.
Unfortunately, we live in the evil timeline, where Superman’s rocket is still drifting somewhere between here and Krypton, Bill Pullman will never be elected president in time to save us from the aliens, and Warhawk Tanzania’s IMDB page is effectively blank. It’s a terrible shame, because the man’s name alone should make him a kung-fu Blaxploitation legend, but it’s entirely understandable because “Devil’s Express” is a terrible movie.
Warhawk stars as that staple of 1970s Blaxploitation cinema – the drug-dealing, kung-fu fighting pillar of the community. He’s a role model to the neighborhood kids, a friend of the police department, a martial arts master, and a generous lover. Sure, he and his sidekick Rodan deal cocaine, but this was before Guliani made 42nd Street safe for the Disney Store. Dealing cocaine was like driving for Uber back then.
Before we’re introduced to Warhawk, however, “Devil’s Express” opens with a prologue set in ancient China. A group of monks perform a ritual in which they’re all sacrificed to trap an ancient demon inside of an amulet, which is sealed up in a cave. Warhawk and Rodan come across this cave while on a kung-fu sabbatical, and Rodan decides to bring the amulet home with him. Naturally, this releases the demon, who possesses some poor dope on the boat back to New York and then takes up residence in the subway.
The presence of an ancient Chinese demon lurking under the sidewalks is little more than a complication in the main plotline of “Devil’s Express,” which is more about Warhawk and Rodan squaring off against the local Chinese mob in a kind of vaguely defined turf war. Drugs are stolen, kicks are exchanged. In the midst of all this, the demon murders a few people unfortunate enough to encounter it in the subway, which the Chinese mob blames on Warhawk and Warhawk blames on the Chinese mob. Could it be that Warhawk is the only man who can figure out what’s really going on? Is Warhawk the only man alive who can fight this demon to the death? Will Warhawk have to don golden overalls? Gentle reader, I suspect you already know the answers to these questions.
Even though the name “Warhawk Tanzania” should be a shining beacon cutting through the darkness, it’s a little surprising to me that “Devil’s Express” isn’t better-known because it’s a bonanza for lovers of 70s schlock. The kung-fu kicks rarely connect with their targets, the sound drops out at odd intervals, and the demon makeup alternates between eyes painted on the actor’s eyelids to the cheapest-looking rubber suit. The script implies that mutant dogs and rats are a common problem in New York’s subway tunnels. Karate fights break out over simple arguments. The movie ends abruptly with the most awkward final line of dialogue I think I’ve ever heard.
Standing in the center of it all is Warhawk Tanzania, doing his damnedest to project Shaft-like charisma and almost making it happen. The thing is, he’s not terrible as an actor – he’s at least as good as Chuck Norris – but he’s no better at staged fighting than anyone else in “Devil’s Express.” That’s a real problem, considering how much of the movie is given over to fight scenes. At a time when audiences could see Bruce Lee snap a guy’s neck at a right angle with a faster-than-light kick, Warhawk’s stiff, plodding moves don’t impress.
“Devil’s Express” deserves more recognition than it has. When I watched it on Amazon Prime, there hadn’t been enough views on it to create recommendations. It’s entirely possible I’m the only person who’s watched it so far, but I hope that’s not the case. So many “so bad they’re good” movies are only bad enough to be bad, but not this one. A Warhawk by any other name would kick as much ass.