Mark Dacascos: A Beginner’s Guide to a Martial Arts Legend

Action star Mark Dacascos achieved mainstream attention for John Wick: Chapter 3 – here, we look back at some of his greatest hits.

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

2019 has been a good year for Mark Dacascos. Not only did he make a glorious return to the big screen as super-assassin/super-fanboy Zero in John Wick: Chapter 3, but he completely stole the show. Critics and audiences stood up and paid attention to what action connoisseurs have known for some time: Dacascos is the real deal.

If you’re a newcomer, you might find yourself daunted by his massive body of work, so here’s a whistlestop tour of some of the highlights and why they’re worth watching. And if you’re an existing convert? Sit back, enjoy the memories and let us know your own faves in the comments.

In the beginning, there was kung fu…

Mark Dacascos was born in Hawaii and is of Filipino, Spanish, Irish, Chinese, and Japanese ancestry – “a typical Hawaiian local boy” as he puts it. His parents both taught kung fu and Mark attended their lessons from early childhood onwards. Al Dacascos, his father, is known for creating Wun Hop Kuen Do (Combination Fist), an offshoot of the Hawaiian Kajukenbo art that blends Karate, Jujutsu, Kenpo and Boxing. In the early 80s, Mark competed in several junior Kung Fu and Karate championships and regularly took first place. He’s also since studied Muay Thai, Chin Na, Tai Chi, Wushu, and Capoeira, amassing a martial arts portfolio as diverse as his heritage.

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It’s no surprise that young Mark’s hero was Bruce Lee, whose own Jeet Kune Do is maybe the ultimate hybrid style, but unlike Lee, he never had any particular ambition to act. He was talent-spotted on the streets of San Francisco’s Chinatown in the mid-80s and cast in Wayne Wang’s Dim Sum (1985), but his small role ended up missing from the final cut. He had a similar near-but-not-quite moment when he played a karate expert in a pilot of Bio-Man, Saban’s TV prototype for what would eventually morph into Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers (albeit without Mark Dacascos).

American Samurai (1992)

The acting bug had bit by this stage so Dacascos paid the bills by working onstage at The Adventures Of Conan attraction at Universal Studios and taking any small screen parts he could get. His first significant role came in Sam Firstenberg’s American Samurai (1992), an attempt to revive and reboot the flagging American Ninja series but with more swords and fewer hoods.

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For all its aesthetic adjustments, it was still a riff on the familiar ninja story, with David Bradley as an American orphan raised in the woods by Japanese samurai. After becoming a master of the sword, he incurs the jealous wrath of his stepbrother (Dacascos). This being a Cannon movie, the two have to square off in a Bloodsport-style tournament, after first making their way through a series of crazily costumed goons. Despite its buckets of gore, the film is not all that great but it does give us a taste of what’s to come from Dacascos – smoldering eyes, oiled-up muscles and confoundingly fast kung fu in styles you need a calculator to work out…

Only the Strong (1993)

Dacascos got his real break in this unusual teen movie that’s kind of like a martial arts version of Stand & Deliver (1988). He plays an ex-Services guy who gets brought into the toughest school in Miami to teach Capoeira classes to local gang kids. It’s an uplifting story with a nice message but what makes it so cool is how rare it is to see Capoeira onscreen and how cinematic it is as a martial art. As it combines elements of music, dance and acrobatics with fighting, the style is a treat both for the eyes and ears. Dacascos takes centre stage and wows with his physical prowess and twinkly good humor to the tune of catchy numbers like “Zum Zum Zum” (which you’ll probably know from the Mazda ads many years later).

Prior to getting the role, Dacascos had no experience with Capoeira but soon learned it directly from Amen Santo, one of the great masters. The result is that he comes off like a natural and the final fight, with Paco Prieto (Lionheart), is staggeringly good. It’s a shame that Only the Strong and the far more dramatic Assailant (2009) are the only two martial arts films that focus primarily on Capoeira, but it’s a testament to how ace it is that both are essential viewing.

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It was arguably Dacascos’s performance in Only the Strong that led to a couple of other reasonable profile leads in Kickboxer 5 (1995) – not the greatest Kickboxer sequel – and as one of the Lee brothers in Double Dragon (1994), a kid-friendly Hollywood adaptation of the beloved arcade game. But the next essential watch on your list should be…

Crying Freeman (1995)

Based on a seminal manga by Kazuo Koike (of Lone Wolf and Cub fame), Crying Freeman is a masterpiece of high concept action cinema. When a shy, lonely painter called Emu O’Hara (Julie Condra) witnesses an assassination in the woods by a mysterious man known only as Yo (Dacascos) they find themselves in a difficult position. Yo’s employers – the shadowy, quasi-supernatural Sons of the Dragon – want Emu killed, because she’s seen his face. But Yo and Emu have fallen deeply in love and he just wants to protect her. Not just from himself but also from the hellish crossfire of the Yakuza war they’re now embroiled in.

Crying Freeman is essentially a romantic melodrama, albeit with a healthy dose of ultraviolence and supernatural mysticism. Christophe Gans directs with flair and the film looks gorgeous from start to finish. The casting is inspired. Condra and Dacascos – who would eventually marry in real life and are still together today (aww) – look uncannily like they’ve stepped right out of Ryoichi Ikegami’s drawings and onto the screen.

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Even in the moments where the plot might feel a bit shaky, you’ll be so blinded by the visuals you won’t care. And the action is insane. Explosions, big stunts, swords galore, Woo-style slo-mo gunfights, martial arts nuttiness, you name it. What’s great is that it’s all done with the utmost sincerity and passion. If you’re after gritty realism, you’ll probably struggle with how stylized this is but it’s a comic book movie in the old-fashioned sense of the term. Impressionistic, over-the-top, colorful, and brilliant.

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Sabotage (1996)

On the other end of the spectrum, Dacascos worked several times with ’80s horror maestro Tibor Takács (The Gate, I Madman) on a run of really solid direct-to-video thrillers – Redline, Sanctuary, Deadly Past – but the best of these has to be Sabotage. He plays Bishop, an ex-black ops guy turned bodyguard, whose employer gets assassinated by a creepy hitman (Tony Todd). FBI Agent Castle (Carrie-Anne Moss) investigates and the two of them find themselves caught up in a deadly game, every bit as chess-like as their names suggest it’ll be…

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Sabotage is a complex thriller for adults, loaded with twists and turns, that plays things straight and delivers a gripping story with great action set-pieces (gunfight on ice? Yes please!). Dacascos proves himself more than just a fighting machine and delivers a credible lead performance. The chemistry between him and Moss as they trade dry quips is a joy to watch and Todd gleefully dials up the evil as their tricksy nemesis. Given how great a pair they make, I’m sad that Castle and Bishop didn’t get a chance to team up again.

Drive (1997)

Let’s not mince words about this one. Drive is quite possibly the most underrated action film of all time. While fans of the genre praise it widely, it remains unfairly obscure outside this cult following. It doesn’t even have a Blu-Ray release as of this writing and the only way to watch the director’s cut is on a long-deleted DVD released in the UK (the US cut was heavily re-edited and laden with a continuous pounding techno soundtrack that really doesn’t work). But it is so, so worth your time.

Dacascos plays Toby Wong, an assassin who’s been modified with a bio-mechanical implant to make him the ultimate weapon, courtesy of the Chinese government. When Wong goes rogue and flees to America, the corporation who built his tech is hot on his trail. Cornered in a barroom gunfight, Wong takes a hostage in the form of down-on-his-luck singer/songwriter (Kadeem Hardison) and demands he drive him cross-country to LA, where the solution to his problems can be found…

What follows is riotous road movie caper like 48 Hours meets Crank. Steven Wang directs with a true fan’s love of action cinema, referencing everything from Five Fingers of Death to Reservoir Dogs, drawing from John Woo and Jackie Chan, and almost certainly inspiring The Matrix with some hi-octane, futuristic kung fu (is it coincidence that this film is produced by Neo Motion Pictures?). Even Wang’s background in Tokusatsu is shouted out, via hilarious fake TV show Walter The Einstein Frog, about a delightful rubber creature who does brain surgery…

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The movie itself looks beautiful, considering it was shot for just $3.5 million, with cool car chases, exploding miniatures and every flavour of kung fu action you could ask for. Dacascos shows off serious skills here with fights so fast and technical they stand beside the best of them. He also does goofy as well as he does badass (his karaoke scene is hysterical). He and Hardison work up a great rapport and – unlike the similarly plotted Rush Hour – the jokes play on the characters’ bond rather than their racial differences.

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Brittany Murphy shines brightly here too, playing one of the all-time great manic pixie dream girls (I mean, how many of the others can wield a submachine gun like this?). Drive is a bonafide action classic; a modest film that stretches far beyond its means through the love and talent poured into it by its cast and crew. If you only watch one Mark Dacascos film, make it this one.

Brotherhood Of The Wolf (2002)

After a few strong genre films like The Base, and a stint as Eric Draven in the TV version of The Crow (Stairway To Heaven), this utterly bizarro movie reunited Dacascos with Crying Freeman director Christophe Gans, upping their surreal comic-book style even further. What’s surprising is that this was a huge international breakout hit, garnering massive critical acclaim despite being an 18th-century martial arts fantasy, in French, with werewolves and swashbuckling. Yep. Really. What a time it was to be alive.

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Samuel Le Bihan plays one of the king’s knights, sent to investigate a series of grisly murders, and Dacascos is his Native American companion, Mani. The plot that unfolds is like a psychotronic Dan Brown story, with the titular secret society working to dethrone King Louis XV in a conspiracy that goes all the way up to the Vatican. Astonishingly, it’s (loosely!) based on a true story but with a few wacky supernatural twists.

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Brotherhood of the Wolf is a unique film that skilfully blends arthouse aesthetic with high energy action and gruesome horror without missing a beat. While there’s tons to love in this movie, Dacascos steals it with a fiery and intense performance. It’s also worth noting he worked closely here with martial arts legend Philip Kwok from the Venom Mob to deliver some truly stunning punch-ups.

Cradle 2 The Grave (2003)

The third of Andrzej Bartkowiak’s flashy collabs with DMX is probably the glossiest film to feature Dacascos in a major role. The plot revolves around some rare gems known as the Black Stones. A thief with a heart of gold (DMX), a Taiwanese cop (Jet Li), and a ruthless crime lord (Dacascos) are all on the jewel trail and mega-budget chaos ensues. I mean, MEGA-BUDGET. At one point, there is a completely gratuitous helicopter which appears in shot purely so it can be blown up. It was a different time, as the Ruff Ryders soundtrack and curious haircuts remind us, and it’s crazy to think now that a down’n’dirty action film like this could be made on such a grand scale.

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If I’m honest, it drips with boneheaded machismo, from the self-consciously “urban” dialogue to the astonishing lack of political correctness and endless penis jokes. While I appreciate the major nod to Repo Man, the plot itself is absurd. However, the action scenes here are phenomenal. There’s an epic quadbike chase intercut with a mass cage fight; there are tanks driven through walls; ropeless abseiling down buildings, and all manner of eye-popping stunts the likes of which they just don’t let you do any more.

Of course, the main reason to watch this is for the final fight. Dacascos takes on Jet Li in a ring of fire while a sprinkler system rains down on them and daaaaamn, this is something to behold. It’s a fine display of hyper-stylish kung fu from two titans and it concludes with one of the most outrageous finishing moves you’ll ever see.

Iron Chef America (2004 – Ongoing)

Determined not to be typecast after the success of Brotherhood, Dacascos worked on some lower profile genre films before getting an unexpected call from the producers of an upcoming TV show called Iron Chef America. It was to be an English language version of a popular Japanese series that set culinary “battles” up between guest chefs and a roster of highly qualified “Iron Chefs” in a fictional castle belonging to a character called The Chairman (Takeshi Kaga).

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When Dacascos heard he’d been shortlisted to play the US version of The Chairman (canonically speaking, The Chairman’s nephew), he asked his agent to clarify to them “I kick not cook!” but nevertheless landed the job, and it’s this long-running role that he’s probably most known for in the USA.

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If you’ve watched the show it is an entertaining and accessible way to enjoy some exceptionally high-calibre cooking. While there are several hosts, all of whom have different parts to play, Dacascos as The Chairman gets to leap around the “Kitchen Stadium”, wave cooking utensils and dramatically reveal each week’s “secret ingredient” (the food around which the “battles” are themed), as you can see in the wonderful video above. It’s just plain iconic, to be honest.

The Legend Of Bruce Lee (2008)

The early 2000s, for Dacascos, were split between Iron Chef, various direct-to-video action vehicles and some higher profile TV appearances. One special treat for martial arts fans from this period was The Legend Of Bruce Lee, a 50-part biographical series made for Chinese TV. Danny Chan makes a fantastic Bruce Lee, up there with the best of Bruceploitation performances, and the show takes us through every facet of the master’s life and eventual death, blending soap opera and kung fu. The good news is if you don’t fancy the full series, there’s a three-hour feature film edit out there…

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Dacascos appears in three episodes (and, thankfully, the edited film) as King Charles, a Muay Thai fighter who challenges Bruce while he’s in Thailand filming The Big Boss. The joy here comes from not just some impressively bruising Muay Thai from Dacascos but from the excitement of him fighting “Bruce” like this. You can see, as a fan, he’s loving every moment and it’s this kind of fantasy – an impossible opponent – that’s at the heart of Bruceploitation’s appeal. In the same way, it was a thrill to watch King Boxer Lo Lieh fight “Bruce” in The Return Of Bruce or to watch Dracula fight “Bruce” in The Dragon Lives Again, it’s super rad to watch Mark Dacascos fight “Bruce” here. It’s a dream come (sort of) true.

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Zero and beyond…

In the last decade, Dacascos has enjoyed more and more mainstream recognition, recently scoring big roles in shows like Marvel’s Agents Of SHIELD and the Hawaii 5-0 reboot. His DTV work has never stopped coming either. He reunited with Andrzej Bartkowiak for Maximum Impact (2017) – a low-budget Expendables style effort with Kelly Hu, Eric Roberts, and Mattias Hues among others – and he made his directorial debut in 2016 with Showdown in Manila.

John Wick: Chapter 3 is the first time he’s been in a major theatrical release for a while but if the response to his performance is anything to go by, it won’t be the last. Zero is a perfect role for him, letting him flex his dramatic, comedic, and physical muscles all at once, showing a whole new audience that he’s one of the most enjoyably versatile actors out there.

In the immediate future, we can already look forward to Wu Assassins (a new Netflix series with The Raid’s Iko Uwais in the lead) and Corto Maltese, the long-awaited historical martial arts epic from Christophe Gans, so there’s no sign of Dacascos slowing down, even after 30-plus years in the business. As his fanbase continues to grow, one thing is clear. When it comes to great action, the secret ingredient is… Maaaaaaaark Dacascos!