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ENTERTAINMENT

The making of a kung fu flick on Guam turns into court battles on both sides of the sea.

June 13, 2007|Kim Christensen | Times Staff Writer

It was supposed to be a win-win, with Guam gaining a toehold in the film industry and two Hollywood moviemakers getting the island government's backing for their new kung fu franchise.

"Max Havoc: Curse of the Dragon" was the first of at least two action flicks that producer John F.S. Laing and director Albert Pyun planned to shoot on Guam as part of an unusual deal with the U.S. territory's economic development agency.

But instead of generating jobs and a box-office bonanza, "Max Havoc" triggered the biggest battle on the Pacific island since the Son of Godzilla tangled with giant insects in 1967.

Guam officials contend that Laing snookered them into putting up $800,000 to guarantee a bank loan on which he later defaulted. Laing counters that they broke their promises of financial support and caused his company to lose $1.5 million.

Territorial Sen. Ben Pangelinan splits the blame, accusing the filmmakers of peddling "the glitz of Hollywood" to star-struck officials who were all too eager to buy it.

"If somebody on Guam wanted to meet Carmen Electra, there are a lot cheaper ways than backing a film in which she had a three-minute part," said Pangelinan, a lonely voice of dissent when the plan was hatched three years ago.

In the resulting 90 minutes of cinematic chop sockey, Swiss-born Mickey Hardt stars as a champion kickboxer-turned-sports-photographer drawn into a web of intrigue on Guam. The plot revolves around women in bikinis, clashes with Japanese assassins, a coveted jade dragon filled with cremated remains and a sinister "grand master" played by David Carradine. Electra has a blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo as a beach vendor.

"The whole thing was just bad all the way around," said Ralph Coon, a Pasadena lighting technician who worked on the movie. "This thing was really destined to wind up in the cutout bin of some truck stop on the way to Barstow."

What sets "Max Havoc" apart from other low-budget, straight-to-video gobblers is how and why it came to be filmed on Guam, a remote locale 1,500 miles south of Japan and 6,000 miles from Hollywood -- with no moviemaking infrastructure.

Although the island has been the backdrop for "Son of Godzilla," the 1962 war movie "No Man Is an Island" and some Japanese commercials, "Max Havoc" marked Guam's most concerted effort to fetch Hollywood dollars.

In all, 30 states and various countries try to attract filmmakers with tax breaks, free office space, police services and other incentives, said California Film Commission director Amy Lemisch. But she knew of none that had plunked down cash to guarantee a third-party loan, putting taxpayers' money on the line if a producer defaulted.

"That, like, blows my mind," she said.

In dueling lawsuits filed in the Superior Courts of Guam and Los Angeles County, the island government seeks to recoup its money from Laing. He denies owing it and wants $2 million in damages.

Their now-soured relationship began in October 2003, when Pyun contacted the Guam Economic Development Administration about shooting the movie on the island after terrorist bombings scuttled his plans for Indonesia, e-mail records show.

The director made his debut in 1982 with the generally wellreceived "The Sword and the Sorcerer." Since then, it's been mostly B titles such as "Bloodmatch" and "Brain Smasher: A Love Story," prompting one online reviewer to dub him "King of the Hacks."

In a November 2003 letter, Pyun told a Guam official that he and Laing's Los Angeles-based Rigel USA Inc. were interested in starting a feature-film company on the island.

"These motion pictures will be repeatedly broadcast in major markets like Japan, Korea, USA and Europe for many years to come, giving Guam and its tourism industry unprecedented and ongoing exposure and promotion," he wrote, later predicting as many as six films a year.

Those rosy projections were no more than "a bill of goods" sold to Guam officials, said Matthew Borden, one of the government's lawyers.

Sen. Pangelinan agrees, accusing Pyun and Laing of dealing in bad faith with then-economic development chief Gerry Perez, Gov. Felix Camacho and other officials.

"They were not able to distinguish a real deal maker from pie-in-the-sky, promise-'em-the-moon deal makers who promised to bring things to Guam and in the end took things from Guam," Pangelinan said.

Robert Underwood, who lost a bid to unseat Camacho last year, said dropping $800,000 wasn't the worst of it.

"The money is not as big as the fact that it symbolizes the ineptness and the naivete of some of the people in the government of Guam," said Underwood, who formerly represented Guam as a nonvoting delegate to the U.S. Congress. "It's more an embarrassment than anything else."

Camacho and Perez declined to comment.

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