T.J. Storm is sort of an oddity within martial arts cinema: despite rarely being cast as more than a minor supporting player in most movies (his biggest role to date was as a recurring sidekick on CONAN THE ADVENTURER), he's remained relevant and a minor fan favorite among the B-movie community for more than two decades. The fact that his very first solo vehicle here didn't come about until 21 years after his debut in the movie business is a shame, if only for the fact that he may no longer be in his physical prime, but the movie does nonetheless show that he can still be utilized in larger roles. BLACK COBRA is far from a perfect vehicle, but it is one of the better (very-)low budget vehicles I've seen in a while.
The story: On a quest to liberate his incarcerated father, a South African martial artist (Storm) travels to Los Angeles to secure the necessary legal funds, but runs into unexpected trouble in the form of the Japanese mafia...
The film's premise potentially sets the movie up as a derivative of RUMBLE IN THE BRONX, but this isn't really the case: the scope just isn't there, and even though Storm's character is a stranger to America, there are no awkward culture shock scenes to be had. Nevertheless, the movie isn't humorless, and this helps things immensely: after seeing some of the intro scenes' cheap camera-work, I expected the worst in the form of a cruddy backyard action flick that takes itself too seriously, but the script by Scott Donovan (adapted from Sebati Mefate's novel "When the Cobra Strikes") actually includes a couple laugh-out-loud moments - a rarity among these kinds of flicks. Also serving as co-director (and co-star), Donovan makes the absolute most of what must have been a limited budget, as he believably stages scenes taking place on two different continents and ensures relatively clean-looking production values.
At its worst, the movie's action content is serviceable, but on the downside, its quality never exceeds "kinda good." T.J. Storm is a legitimate practitioner of a plethora of fighting arts, and by default it's cool to watch an African character utilizing snake-style kung fu, but I think it's fair to say that, compared to a good deal of modern practitioners, he's a bit on the slow side, physically. Of course, this may just be the flawed pace of the choreography, but some of his opponents just plainly look quicker than him: Hong Kong veteran Jeff Wolfe and sometimes-heroine Stefanie Cheeva immediately come to mind. Conversely, stalwart villain Cary Tagawa - playing the Yakuza lord - is also kinda slow but looks relatively good when engaging T.J. with a katana; I really wasn't expecting anymore fight scenes out of him, so it's cool that we got this one.
The movie begins with investigating the inequality and racial hatred that still goes on in South Africa, but this ends up giving way to contrasting pictures of friendship and father-son relationships. Pleasingly, the film features sections of genuine Japanese and African dialect being spoken - always a nice thing, in these cheap movies. If BLACK COBRA here were judged simply on a ratio of what was attempted versus what ended up working, it'd get a higher rating, but there's really only so high a rating that I can give a film like this. Were the picture made with an actual budget and with maybe a slightly tighter storyline, not to mention swifter fights, this one would at least manage a 7. Nevertheless, if you're interested in T.J. Storm, this is definitely a place to start.