Revisiting 90s Trini Action Films ‘Men of Gray’ & ‘Flight of the Ibis’ (T&T 6 for 60 Pt 2/6)

Julien Neaves, Caribbean Head Writer

Hey folks. Editor Jules here. My home country Trinidad and Tobago is celebrating 60 years of Independence on August 31, 2022. So I thought what better way to celebrate than to have a series of six articles celebrating Trini content.

And for our second part we will be revisiting the seminal 90s martial arts crime drama action films Men of Gray and its sequel Flight of the Ibis. With a nostalgic SPOILER ALERT let’s retro review them both.

Men of Gray (1990)

That is one impressive ‘stache

Men of Gray is a made for television film starring G. Anthony Joseph as martial arts instructor and former policeman Joe Cameron who teams up with his old partner Ivan Rightman (Charles Applewaite) to bring down drug lord Jack Russo (Bernard Hazell). Joseph co-wrote the screenplay with his wife Ria Roebuck Joseph and the film’s director Ric Moxley.

Flashback more than 30 years ago and young Julien is watching Trinidad and Tobago Television (TTT), the national and then only local TV station (CCN TV6 would kick off a year later). And what would come on one night but Men of Gray, a movie with a karate-fighting cop. Now I had seen martial arts movies before (or kick-ups as we call them in TT) but one set IN Trinidad with TRINI actors speaking in the Trini DIALECT. My young mind was completely blown! And it made history as the first full action feature film shot in Trinidad.

God made man out of the dust. Why did he have to make my men out of sh–?

Watching the film now it does feel dated and its small budget, made for TV origins are obvious. But it was a monumental achievement for its time and is still a decent watch today. Joseph is a force of righteous nature as Joe. Applewaithe is solid as Rightman. But best performance goes to Hazell as the knife-throwing, scenery-devouring villain. He would go on to play the morally dubious Herbert Gunn-Monroe in popular TT soap opera Westwood Park, and shows his class here.

The story does take a while to get going action-wise, and Joe’s student taking an overdose would have been more impactful if he was introduced prior to that scene. But the final act makes it more than worth it as it goes into full action mode and Joseph gets to show off his skills. The final battle with Russo was the scene that remained etched in my young mind up until I rewatched it recently for this review, and it is still a blast to watch. So while not the best local film or best action film, it is worth checking out for the Trini time capsule factor, Hazell’s gloriously over-the-top performance and Joseph’s head-cracking display.

Score: 6 out of 10

Men of Gray II: Flight of the Ibis (1996)

#squadgoals

While a sequel, the film also serves as something of a soft reboot, which makes sense as most audiences, especially international audiences, would know nothing about the small, made for TV original. And while Joe, his wife and his young son return from part one there are no references to the events of the first film. In terms of continuity, Men of Gray ended with Joe still out of the force and promising to “stay home.” Flight of the Ibis begins with him heading the titular Ibis anti-narcotic police squad. It can be assumed that between the two films Joe rejoined the force and moved his way up the ranks to Sergeant. But if you go into Flight of the Ibis having not seen the first film you would be fine, which I presume was the intention.

The sequel/soft reboot, which was released in cinemas and would enjoy a run on US cable, improves on the original by leaps and bounds. The story is deeper, darker, more complex and more mature. A drug lord Joe put away years before named Mercer (played by Paul Tuerpe of Superman, The Goonies and Lethal Weapon films) escapes from prison and, together with corrupt police and politicians, frames the hero cop for drug dealing as well as the murder of his wife and attempted murder of his young son, the latter brought to life in a chilling assassination scene set to a dark version of the national anthem. So Joe sets off the run while his fellow officers, determined Kelly (Tricia Lee Kelshall), intelligent Doyle (Marcel Hilwig), frightened rookie Jason (Cauri Jaye), and dogged reporter Zack Lareau (veteran of stage and screen Michael Cherrie).

Run, Joseph, run!

Flight of the Ibis double up on the great villains, with both Tuerpe’s fantastic performance as the soft-spoken, merciless drug lord and Hansley Adjodha’s superb turn as the brash, corrupt, misogynistic officer Cunnigham delivering quite the one-two bad guy punch. Joseph is great again as Cameron and gets a lot more opportunity to show off his dramatic, comedic and (of course) his martial arts skills. And both Hilwig and Cherrie do great work as supporting characters with a script that gives them adequate opportunity to shine. Jaye also makes the scared, fresh-faced officer belieavble. And Kelshall is somewhat stiff at times and her dialogue not the most inventive but she’s not too bad and quite easy on the eyes. Trinis will also recognise several cameos including the late actress and comedienne Shirley “Beulah” King in a hilarious appearance, veteran journalist Dominic Kalipersad playing himself, and late great local Horace James as an amoral politician, just to name a few.

While the original’s pacing is a bit lopsided Flight of the Ibis cuts a brisk pace, and there is so much fast-paced action and intrigue you will not realise that almost two hours pass when the credits roll. There is so many martial arts fights, gunfights, foot chases, car chases, and bad guy scheming, it is like 90s action film buffet. The final fight between Joe and Mercer on board a helicopter is so 90s it should be wearing overalls, watching Fresh Prince and listening to TLC. I love it! And during my rewatch the film actually felt improved than the last time I had seen it. It’s not a perfect film, though. The production is not polished as your Hollywood fare, which is not surprising as the producers did not have Hollywood-level budget. And I did think the rivalry between Mercer and Joe could have been built on some more. But those are nitpicks about a well-made, thrilling and endlessly entertaining crime drama action film that I (and all Trinis) should be proud of. Kudos to G. and the team.

Score: 8 out of 10

PS And speaking of G. Anthony Joseph, he has been working the next installment of the MOG trilogy currently titled Liberty in the Fires (read more below) and I for one and most excited to see it when it comes out.

G. ANTHONY JOSEPH TALKS MEN OF GRAY III AND TT FILM INDUSTRY
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Julien “Editor Jules” Neaves is a TARDIS-flying, Force-using Trekkie whose bedroom stories were by Freddy Krueger, learned to be a superhero from Marvel, but dreams of being Batman. I love promoting Caribbean film (Cariwood), creating board games and I am an aspiring author. I say things like “12 flavours of awesome sauce”. Read more.

Are you a fan of the Men of Gray films? Are you looking forward to part three? Sound off in the comments. You can watch the first two films on Caribbean streaming service Pavilion+. And you can check out more action packed Trini content below:

TOP 5 TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO ACTION MOVIES
TT ACTION FLICK ‘CODE R.E.D.D’ IS A CRACKING GOOD TIME