Seeing that the time-off in between films was working nicely for the franchise, this fourth and final entry in the ‘Sister Street Fighter’ series now arrives with a full year break in between the releases, in a sequel in name-only since it was graced with a new creative team in director Shigehiro Ozawa and writers Isao Matsumoto and Motohiro Torii.

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Trying to please her mother, young Kiku Nakagawa (Etsuko Shihomi, from “Dragon Princess”) continually leaves their successful kimono shop business in order to take martial arts at a local dojo. Her friend at the dojo, Michi (Mitchi Love, from “Battle Fever J”) becomes concerned about her stepbrother Jim (Ken Wallace) going missing one day, eventually learning that he’s been in the employ of movie studio owner Fujiyama (Nobuo Kawaii, from “Bushido”), who’s been using the studio as a base for a series of smuggling operations and the film shoots as a front for the activities. Taking the situation up with police detective Takagi (Tsunehiko Watase, from “The Incident”), things take a dark turn when Jim gets killed and Michi is kidnapped for investigating the drug ring, forcing Kiku to take a secret role in the studios’ latest production, in order to recover her friend and put an end to their operation.

Overall, ‘Fifth Level Fist’ easily emerges as the weakest of the entries despite some positive points. One of its best points is the fact that this one manages to introduce the strongest story, courtesy of writers Matsumoto and Torrii. This one does trot out the drug-trafficking angle one more time, but there’s a remarkable meta-ness here, with the entire ploy being hidden behind a movie studio making a martial arts film. The fact that the ring is operating under that guise and smuggling the drugs out in the props used for filming is a pretty clever way of doing so, and with the added bonus of being used as a front the manner in which everyone gets caught up in it seems quite logical.

Having Jim involved against his will sets up a fine storyline, involving them investigating the incident through the production they’re filming, and with the secondary plot about Kiku being forced into a setup with the detective carries this part of the film nicely. As well, the scenes featuring the action taking place aren’t too bad, with some brief flashes in the first hour before really letting loose with a spectacular brawl across the studio lot in the finale that stands up to the big, grand fights that were present in the other entries in the series.

Also rather enjoyable is some of the fine acting on display. Despite not playing a large role here, Etsuko Shihomi as Kiku Nakagawa carries herself with the most amount of comfort and grace in the series outside the action scenes. From the playful rebellious relationship she has with her father in order to get away to study, based on the obvious discomfort she has in a kimono, to the rather fine determination she has going after the criminals, it’s a nice range and there’s a lot to like from her beyond the obvious grace and dynamic skill set shown in the martial arts battles. The other big plus here is Mitchi Love as the heartbroken Michi, who has a fine change-of-pace from the innocent best friend to full-on participant in the brawling. The backstory we get on her and Jim’s relationship is perfectly utilized to make her emotional breakdown really honest, and while she gets kidnapped midway through, she’s a perfectly fine addition to the cast. Tsunehiko Watase as detective Takagi is a fine one-note cop, trying to bring down the drug ring while trying to keep a level head about the imposition Kiku has on the investigation. The rest of the cast isn’t bad but none of them just stand-out all that much.

That said, there are some problems with ‘Fifth Level Fist.’ The biggest setback against it is, ironically, the setup from writers Matsumoto and Torii that favors keeping the star of the film from doing what she does best off-screen for nearly the entire film. It’s quite evident that there was little reason to incorporate this one into the franchise as the lack of crazed villains or wall-to-wall kung-fu battles that were part of those entries are quite absent here. That manages to keep her from performing any kind of physical activity until the end as the main focus is on the crime-drama elements of uncovering Jim’s murderer, which leads to the movie studio and their smuggling operation, decidedly keeping the film low-key and laidback for exceptionally long periods of time. The pacing from director Ozawa never strays into boredom, but this formula change-up doesn’t gel with the tone of the other films and keeps the film from really breaking into the over-the-top style that could’ve really provided plenty of fun. As well, this aspect also manages to feel slightly odd when it does break into the action at the end, where the frenetic action and editing in the huge brawl across the studio lot against scores of henchmen are so completely at odds with the sedate crime thriller this had been beforehand, that seems to come off as if being shoehorned in from another film entirely.

The other problem with the film is a seemingly odd shift in tone throughout its main drama. The plight of Jim and Michi is a somewhat interesting take on nationalism in Japanese society, what with him being half-black while living in a completely tough Japanese neighborhood where they encounter racist and nationalistic antagonism from childhood that seems to strengthen their bond together, only to then dump that in favor of exploring the drug trade as if there was little reason to include it. On top of that curious touch, the weighty topics it chooses to tackle, such as the nationalism evident there or the more realistic touch from the investigating officers, seems completely clashing with the light-hearted humor on display. The idea of Kiku being nearly prearranged for marriage to a chauvinistic police officer is played for laughs as the parents’ old-school mindset goes against the more modern take she has for her life in her martial arts studies to be able to fend for herself. These scenes of her in make-up and bright kimonos are incredibly silly, much like the outright cartoonish idea of tying the girl to a log and sent towards a buzzsaw to be split in half. These elements are just part of what happens to make the plot feel incredibly jarring and distracting as a result, even if none of it really holds it down in terms of pacing.

With a few minor enjoyable elements and some rather standout flaws to be found, ‘Fifth Level Fist’ comes off as a rather curious entry that still maintains some watchable efforts but is decidedly on the low-end of the series as a result. Give this a look if you’re itching to try something else out after the rather same-feeling original trilogy, while those simply looking for another high-energy kung-fu heavy affair should heed excessive caution.

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