As VHS sales boomed in the 1990s, PM Entertainment saw an opportunity. This fledgling direct-to-video production company, founded by the Canadian Richard Pepin (“P”) and Syrian Joseph Merhi (“M”), envisioned Blockbuster Video walls and HBO schedules filling up with their titles, and tailored their films to serve what was selling. Invariably this meant guns, pecs, enormous fireballs, and a soupçon of sex, so that’s what they delivered with clockwork regularity. Over the course of the decade PM Entertainment would produce over 100 features and television episodes that contained more exploding cars-per-minute than any studio in history. Despite miniscule budgets they executed insanely complicated stunts that would launch their action choreographer into the Fast and Furious franchise.
Joseph Merhi emigrated from Syria to the United States as a teenager “armed only with a high school diploma, 400 dollars and a basic grasp of the English language”, according to his official biography. He started as a dishwasher at a Chaparral Steakhouse and worked his way up to owning and operating five Pizza N Pizza locations in Las Vegas. While in Vegas he started taking acting classes, which is where he met future PM Entertainment director Richard Munchkin. In 1984 he sold the restaurants and moved to Los Angeles with Munchkin to become a filmmaker.
In an invaluable oral history for Hopes & Fears Merhi recalled that “I knew I wanted to make movies, but I didn’t really know how to do it. So I hired this guy I knew of named Rick Pepin. He owned his own 16mm camera and could operate it.” Thus began a decades-long collaboration. First they made a comedy together called Hollywood in Trouble (1986) that is now impossible to see, as every distributor rejected it. Instead they were told that if they made an action movie they might consider it. They would learn this lesson, but not for a few years. Instead they formed the production company City Lights to make a passionately bizarre thriller entitled Mayhem (1986), which Merhi wrote and directed, and Pepin edited and shot. Made on a shoestring, it’s about two misogynistic buddies who pine for lost loves in-between their day job of assassinating lowlifes. Most of it takes place in diners and on the way to LAX, a portrait of drift and empty L.A. streets more than the bloodshed promised on its poster. If there’s one thing from this period they carry over to PM, it’s the location photography, in which they capture the in-between spaces of Los Angeles with the eye of a local.
City Lights focused on the horror market its first few years (Epitaph, The Newlydeads), but started to transition to action films (L.A. Crackdown) just as there was a falling out with a third partner, Ron Gilchrist. So when Pepin and Merhi spun off and started PM Entertainment in 1989, they were ready and willing to give distributors as much bang for their buck as they desired, and they soon had a deal with HBO to air movies of the week. Richard Munchkin would describe their blueprint to Hopes & Fears: “The rule eventually became that somebody had to either be shooting, chasing, or fighting every seven minutes, and, if it was quicker than that, even better.” They became especially adept at car stunts, especially “grab strap turnovers”, which stunt choreographer Cole McKay described as “a car turnover where you don’t use a cage.” They would do four of these a day whereas one a day was the norm.
Some of the very early PM productions, such as the amiable Dan Haggerty vehicle Repo Jake (1990), look like they were shot on video, and have the amateur airlessness of student films.
But very quickly budgets were in the $350,000 range for a 15-day shoot, and everything shifted to 35mm. With the Bloodsport fight tournament template still in-demand, they would cast recognizable names and have them go kick shirtless for 90 minutes, like Lorenzo Lamas in Final Impact (1992) or Jeff Wincott in Deadly Bet (1992). They would also try to develop the English kickboxer Gary Daniels and the tow-headed Michael Worth as in-house martial arts stars, bumping them up in prominence with each film.
This nurturing of talent happened below the line as well, as Cole McKay went from doing stunts on Angels of the City (1989) to stunt coordinating on the Wings Hauser movie The Art of Dying (1991) to directing the Jeff Fahey vehicle The Underground (1997). It was a place reminiscent of the old Hollywood studio system, where you could learn every aspect of film production very fast since they used small production teams.
Final Impact and Deadly Bet were shot in nearby Las Vegas, and the cinematographers made the most of the dark, neon-lit setting. At City on Fire Michael Retter makes the case for these films (and Maximum Impact) to be part of a cycle of “Kickboxing Noir” films made for the company. Director of Photography Ken Blakey said, “I got my foot in the door just as they were making the transition from 16mm ultra low budget movies to 35mm films with known actors and bigger production values. The film noir look in the martial arts films in 1990/91 were shot by Rick with me as his Gaffer and 2nd camera.” These were certainly lit darker than other PM productions, and this style was pushed to its limit in Maximum Force (1992), the most expressionistically lit DTV production until Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (2012).
Blakey takes credit for the look: “The noir aesthetic in Maximum Force was strictly my choice. Of course, I had to give the studio a commercially viable product that they could market, but when dailies started coming in they loved it. At the time I remember seeing two pictures shot by cinematographer Bojan Bazelli. They were King of New York (1990) and Deep Cover (1992). They both had a very dark look and used saturated colors in the lighting. Maximum Force was my third show as Director of Photography for PM and I decided to just let it all hang out. Extreme angles, wide lenses, and most of all DARK. Even in daylight the contrast between sun and shadow is often emphasized. At night faces are back or side lit with little or no fill light. The “unseen” adds to the drama and sense of foreboding.”
Maximum Force is in another favorite PM genre – rogue cop goes up against a corrupt police force. This time it is Flash Gordon himself, Sam Jones, starring as the only clean officer in a town bought up by mobster Max Tanabe (Richard Lynch, Invasion U.S.A.). Joseph Merhi directs with growing efficiency, having taken the 7-minute rule to heart more than anyone on staff, making his films sleek propulsive machines that rarely stop to allow his actors to emote (dangerous for Jones, as well as Lamas and Wincott). The stunts are choreographed by Red Horton, who started with Merhi back at City Lights and who opts for a brutal, brawling style well suited to Sam Jones’ linebacker physique. There is a wild frisson that occurs when you see Jones ham-fisting his way through a brawl and it is lit like a Delacroix painting with pools of inky blackness. PM allowed for experimentation within their template – as long as you were within budget.
While the martial arts and cop films are the most fondly remembered, PM also tried to rip off any popular trend in Hollywood, whether it was virtual reality (Hologram Man), alien invasion (Dark Breed) or Die Hard (Skyscraper, in which Anna Nicole Smith took the John McClane role). In this sense they were the forerunner of The Asylum, who transitioned to “mockbusters” in 2005 and are still cranking out Sharknados. But the meat and potatoes product were the fight films, and over the years Gary Daniels became their most reliable performer. Born in London, Daniels started kickboxing training when he was 17, and entered the professional ranks before retiring with a 4-0 record, as the movies were offering better paydays. In an interview with Eastern Film Fans, Daniels recalls how he hooked up with PM: “Van Damme had just come out with Bloodsport, Segal had Above the Law so martial arts movies were hot at that time and a lot of smaller independent companies were casting for ‘real’ martial artists for their films. I had just won a WKBA light heavyweight title and was asked to audition for a role in Ring of Fire (1991) for a company called PM Entertainment. I was hired, got my S.A.G. card and then they offered me a three picture deal so my career just picked up pace from there.”
Ring of Fire starred another key PM fighter from the kickboxing world, Don “The Dragon” Wilson. Wilson is regarded as one of the greatest kickboxers ever, having won eleven championships. Roger Corman’s Bloodfist (1989) put him on PM’s radar, convincing them to make kicking their business (and business was good). Daniels was brought in as an early round fighter wearing tiny red muay thai shorts who loses to Wilson in Ring of Fire and then to Michael Worth in Final Impact (1992). With his lush ponytail and cocky pre-fight splits, he looked like a yuppie version of Van Damme.
Sensing a DTV star in the making, they gave him a lead role in the sci-fi actioner Firepower (1993) alongside Chad McQueen (Steve’s son), which also featured former WWF wrestler The Ultimate Warrior in an all-grunting role as “The Swordsman”. There is a grab strap turnover and an exploding car almost exactly seven minutes into this remarkably bizarre feature directed by Richard Pepin with stunts coordinated by Cole McKay, set in a future 2007 where a counterfeit AIDS vaccine is flooding the market and Daniels is caught inside an unpoliced area called the “Hell Zone” in which his only way out is, you guessed it, a fighting tournament. The one theme that runs throughout PM productions is a complete lack of faith in authority. Whether it’s the government, the police, or the family unit, corruption infects everyone except for one principled man (who is great at kickboxing).
The peak in PM Entertainment’s output, and of Daniels’ run with them, is the three R’s – Rage (1995), Riot (1996) and Recoil (1998). This aligns with the arrival of action director Spiro Razatos, who would raise the technical level of PM Entertainment’s stunt work above what Hollywood was doing at the time. He was so valued at the company he would get his own end title card before the credits rolled. And after you see the semi-truck chase in Rage or the barroom brawl in Riot, you’ll see why he was soon snapped up by the big studios, where he still works today, most recently in reviving the Fast and Furious franchise.
Razatos grew up in Denver, Colorado, where he was bullied as a kid. He told Slash Film about how he became fixated on Shaft, seeing it 28 times until a friend said to him, “You know Shaft doesn’t actually do all that stuff, right?” So he started to learn about who did do all that stuff, and taught himself how to fall without getting hurt. He put together a reel with a Super 8 camera, jumping off the roof and setting himself on fire. The reel starting getting seen in Hollywood, which became his ticket out of Denver – getting an uncredited stunt on Sam Peckinpah’s The Osterman Weekend.
Orson Welles once said that working on a Hollywood movie was like having the biggest toy train set any boy could ever have. And on his films with PM Entertainment, Razatos exemplifies that attitude. If two cars enter a frame, they WILL crash into each other and explode. In Rage, directed by Joseph Merhi, Daniels plays a mild-mannered school teacher who is injected with a government super-soldier serum (being tested on immigrants without their consent) that makes him flip out and go on a rampage. The whole film is one long chase as the cops and the military try to corral him. In his initial escape he commandeers a semi-truck, blasts through a road block, smashes four cars, explodes four more, and ends it in a duel with another big rig that jackknifes, crashes to the ground, and blows up in a massive conflagration. The cherry on top is a cop car that is pipe ramped over the explosion, pirouetting through the air through the fire until it lands with a satisfying crunch. It’s pure twisted metal poetry that wouldn’t be out of place in a Fast and Furious movie. Razatos started on Fast Five as second unit director and has worked on every one since doing second unit and stunt coordinating work, including on Furious 9, which is due in 2021. Andy and Jack Gill, the brother stunt choreographers, give lots of credit to Razatos for invigorating the franchise in that Slash Film interview. Here is what they attributed Fast Five’s success to: “let’s go back to doing things real. Let’s make the audience feel like they’re part of the action again. And that’s what really started the evolution of reviving the Fast & Furious franchise. Well, that approach…plus the fact that Spiro is a creative genius.”
Riot, also directed by Merhi, makes the, let’s say, problematic decision to make an action movie out of the L.A. riots. Daniels, with the help of Sugar Ray Leonard, is sent into the most violent section of a riot (a reaction to a cop killing an unarmed black civilian) to rescue the daughter of the governor. The gangs seem straight out of The Warriors, except they are hockey thugs rather than baseball goons. There is a beautifully composed brawl early on in a bar, when Leonard and Daniels sync up to beat up a group of beer league bozos who use racial slurs. It is pure simplicity and logic – Daniels tenderizes them with kicks, and Leonard knocks them out with punches. Razatos adapts to the different tone of the film, going for character building jabs rather than spectacular roundhouses.
Recoil, directed by Art Camacho, has the simplest setup – a variation on the corrupt cop scenario from Maximum Force. This time Daniels is an officer who kills a mobster’s son in the line of duty, and everyone involved starts getting knocked off. The whole Los Angeles police force seems to be in the gangster’s pocket in his quest for revenge. Razatos opens with an epic bank shootout that transitions into a jaw-dropping motorcycle chase. The stunt drivers pull off some preposterously skilled maneuvers in scaling down a staircase and climbing up and over a police car to angle for an escape.
By 2000 the studios started to notice how lucrative the DTV market had become, and began putting some investment into that market – pushing Van Damme and Lundgren most of all. Knowing they couldn’t compete on budget, Merhi, Pepin, and their third partner George Shamieh (who led their international sales division) decided to sell before their market collapsed. So in 2000 PM Entertainment, and its library of over 150 films and 74 television episodes, were sold to Harvey Entertainment Group (of Casper the Friendly Ghost fame) for $10 million. A few years later Harvey Entertainment sold the PM library to what would later be known as Echo Bridge Home Entertainment for $6 million.
Joseph Merhi and Richard Pepin have since removed themselves from the movie business, and the legacy of PM Entertainment has faded. But this was a company that should be celebrated in the same spirit as Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, one that allowed many talented young artists to make some very big explosions.